If your infant is clinically obese at 24 months, it could be due to overeating early on, a new study shows.
"If you are overweight at age two, it puts you on a trajectory where you are likely to be overweight into middle childhood and adolescence and as an adult," said Renata Forste, co-author and sociology professor at Brigham Young University. "That's a big concern."
So parents may want to think twice before overfeeding their baby.
Researchers collected data from more than 8,000 families and found that most formula-fed babies were 2.5 times more at risk of obesity compared to babies who were breastfed for the first six months. But it's certain habits, not just formula-feeding, that put babies at risk of obesity.
"There seems to be this cluster of infant feeding patterns that promote childhood obesity," said Ben Gibbs, lead author and sociology professor.
For example, putting a baby to bed with a bottle could increase his or her chance of childhood obesity by 36 percent. And if you feel introducing solid foods before four months boosts development, think again because it puts a child at risk of obesity by 40 percent, the study says.
"Developing this pattern of needing to eat before you go to sleep, those kinds of things discourage children from monitoring their own eating patterns so they can self-regulate," Forste said.
So one way to combat this this problem is pretty simple. If the child is full and doesn't want any more from the bottle, don't encourage him or her to finish it.
Deciding whether to feed your baby formula or to breastfeed is another one of those questions new mothers have to choose, but leading health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization say it's best to breastfeed as it protects the child from chronic conditions and infections, and even averts allergies.
"Bottle feeding somehow changes the feeding dynamic, and those who bottle feed, alone or mixed with some breastfeeding, are more likely to add cereal or sweeteners to their infant's bottle at an early age, even before feeding cereal with a spoon," said Salley Findley, public health professor at Columbia University.
Low-income mothers are least likely to breastfeed their babies, putting their children at risk for gaining weight, previous studies have shown. In states such as California, the obesity rates are higher than the national average, with almost one in five children being overweight.
In addition, world health leaders say they observe better outcomes in breastfed infants. In poor countries, it prevents diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, and other diseases, according to UNICEF.
Another guilty habit among many parents is feeding infants junk food or soft drinks, which are full of extra calories that make no room for a healthy diet. Nutrient-deficiency can also harm proper development.
Even juice, while it may originate from fruit, has lost its nutritional value after processing and carries more sugar than you think. Crackers are another food item that can put children at risk for developing a "salt tooth" and heighten their sodium intake, if not monitored.
"The health community is looking to the origins of the obesity epidemic, and more and more, scholars are looking toward early childhood," Gibbs said. "I don't think this is some nascent, unimportant time period. It's very critical."
Looking ahead, the Brigham Young researchers want to probe whether there is a closer connection between breastfeeding and cognitive development in children.
The study appears in Pediatric Obesity.