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Habitual overeating learned in infancy, BYU study says

Published: Wednesday, May 22 2013 10:49 p.m. MDT

PROVO — How parents feed their infants can decrease the odds of early childhood obesity, but breast-feeding is only part of the picture, according to a new study by Brigham Young University sociologists.

An analysis of independently collected data from more than 8,000 families suggested that when mothers fed their children predominantly formula during the first six months, those children were 2.5 times more likely to be obese by age 2 than babies whose mothers breast-fed them. But other parenting habits also contributed to childhood obesity: Children who were introduced to solid food before 4 months of age were 40 percent more likely to become obese as toddlers; and when parents put their babies to bed with a bottle, the risk for childhood obesity increased by 36 percent.

These behaviors were more common among low-income families, and breast-feeding less common, according to the study. Also, childhood obesity is most common below the poverty line.

"Behavioral practices can really set a child on a course for either good health or obesity really early on," said Ben Gibbs, an assistant professor of sociology at BYU and the lead author of the study.

But the good news from the study, he said, is that it may not be necessary to change a woman's socio-economic status to improve the health of her children. Rather, educational and support programs that teach parents good feeding habits and the proper ages for breast milk and solid food, could make an impact.

However, the reality of many low-income situations could still prevent many women from breast-feeding, and from introducing solid foods at the appropriate age. Women whose work situations do not allow adequate opportunities for breast-feeding or pumping are far less likely to continue breast-feeding for the recommended six months.

"Formula feeding becomes more convenient, more readily available, despite its cost," Gibbs said. "There's a lifestyle component that's really difficult to carry out if you're economically distressed."

Additionally, these low-income women generally do not have access to the community support that breast-feeding requires, said BYU sociology professor Renata Forste, another of the study's authors. Unlike college-educated women, who are far more likely to breast-feed, low-income mothers are more likely to have children while in their teenage years and are less likely to know other women who breast-feed.

This lack of support likely also contributes to low-income mothers' decisions to feed their babies solid food early, and to offer a bottle just before putting their children to bed — strategies a woman might employ to persuade an infant to sleep through the night at an earlier age, Forste said.

"A lot of it is because they don't have the support," she said. "The children who need it most don't get it."

Those who cannot breast-feed, or who otherwise choose not to do so, should learn to better interpret their infant's cues while feeding. If a child pulls away before the bottle is finished, there's no reason to force them to finish the last few ounces — in fact, the study argues against it, Gibbs said.

"Let them be finished when they're finished," he said. "There should be a lot of half-empty bottles around the house."

Because the study analyzed data gathered by an outside agency, Gibbs and Forste said they were unable to separate whether it was the nutritional benefits of breast milk or the parenting practices that came with breast-feeding that protected infants from early obesity. They plan to explore that relationship in future research, Gibbs said.

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