Less Sensitive Moms Linked to Teen Obesity

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Pedestrians walk across a street near Times Square in New York in a file photo. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The quality of a mother’s relationship with her toddler is being linked to the possibility a child could become obese in his or her teenage years, researchers said on Monday. 

Researchers at Ohio State University found that toddlers who were in the lowest-quality emotional relationships by their mothers were at a greater risk of being obese at age 15.

The lower the quality of the relationship in terms of less emotional security for the child and the month’s sensitivity, the greater the risk - more than 25 percent higher - that the child would become obese by in their teenage years.

The findings were published in the Journal Pediatrics. A recent separate study also looking into childhood obesity found that toddlers who were inadequately cared for were at an increased risk for obesity by the age of four and a half.

Results suggest that considering strategies to improve mother- child bonds could also improve obesity prevention efforts.

"Societally, we need to think about how we can support better-quality maternal-child relationships because that could have an impact on child health," said Sarah Anderson, assistant professor of epidemiology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study.

Tracking Play, Supportiveness, Autonomy, and Hostility

Researchers had 977 participants.  All of the participants were born in 1991 and were from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

Researchers observed child attachment security and maternal sensitivity between mother and their children when the children were 15, 24 and 36 months old.

Scientists analyzed maternal sensitivity by looking at the mother’s behavior towards the child when they were instructed to play, and measured the supportiveness, respect for autonomy, and hostility of the mother.

"Sensitive parenting increases the likelihood that a child will have a secure pattern of attachment and develop a healthy response to stress," Anderson said. "A well-regulated stress response could in turn influence how well children sleep and whether they eat in response to emotional distress – just two factors that affect the likelihood for obesity."

Anderson calculated children’s body mass index at age 15, and found that obesity was found in 26.1 percent of adolescents who had the poorest early maternal- child relationships.

"The evidence here is supportive of the association between a poor-quality maternal-child relationship and an increased chance for adolescent obesity," Anderson said. "Interventions are effective in increasing maternal sensitivity and enhancing young children's ability to regulate their emotions, but the effect of these interventions on children's obesity risk is not known, and we think it would be worth investigating."

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