Obese moms are more likely to use television to entertain their children, especially if the child is fussy, according to a new study.

The study, researchers say, might explain why many children are being diagnosed with weight-related problems at an early age.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of all children in U.S or 12.5 million children and teens in the country are affected by obesity.

"In the past, studies have focused on maternal factors for obesity and TV watching, but this is the first time anyone has looked at infant factors and the interaction between maternal and infant characteristics in shaping TV behavior across infancy. And that's important because mom and infant behaviors are inextricably linked," said Amanda L. Thompson, a biological anthropologist in the College of Arts and Sciences and lead author of the study.

The study included 217 mother-baby pairs from central North Carolina. These people were enrolled in the study that looked at obesity risks in infants. Researchers assessed children's behavior and exposure to television at 3, 6, 9 12 and 18 months of age. All participants were black and were from low-income families.

The study analysis showed that mothers who had a high body mass index, those who watched a lot of television and those who had a fussy child were more likely to use the TV to entertain the kids. By the time the children were a year old, at least 40 percent of them were already watching television three hours a day. Mothers who didn't have a high school diploma and whose kids were considered active were more likely to feed their infants in front of the TV.

"Feeding infants in front of the TV can limit a mom's responsiveness in terms of examining infant cues, such as when an infant is telling mom he is no longer hungry. This work has helped us design intervention strategies that will help teach moms how to soothe their babies, without overfeeding them or putting them in front of a TV," Margaret E. Bentley, principal investigator and a professor of nutrition in UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health in a news release.

The study is published in the journal Pediatrics.