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Older Siblings: Greater Predictors of Childhood Obesity Than Parents

sibling obesityI did everything I could while I was pregnant — and even before — to put the odds in my son’s favor when it came to health and weight. And while it doesn’t overtly seem like it should matter, the weight of a mother at birth impacts her child’s obesity risk. The same holds true for parents in general; kids of overweight parents are more likely to be overweight themselves. Some of that can be chalked up to DNA, while partial credit goes to the environment and habits picked up at home.

So you’d think a kid born three and a half weeks early to two normal-weight, health-conscious parents who was originally deemed “failure to thrive” would be safe from obesity, right? Not so much. My son, who once hovered well below the initial line on the growth chart suddenly jumped to the top of the scale at around 18 months. It was one of those moments in parenting when you feel terrible because it feels like it’s you’re fault. I felt I had done my child wrong and wasn’t taking the best possible care of him. I still feel that way considering he’s only gone further up the growth chart since then. But it’s also one of those things where you’re completely aware (and grateful) that it’s not something bigger; it’s just a weight issue.

The thing is though, a toddler being overweight is not just a weight issue — it’s also a clear predictor for obesity as a child, a teen, and an adult. And besides the potential for self-confidence issues and taunting and teasing from peers, obesity is a predictor for countless other more serious health issues. Those are what I fear most for my child. He already has asthma; I don’t want him to also struggle with diabetes, heart problems, or blood pressure complications. As a mom, I just want him to have the best chance at a healthy life as possible. There will come a time where there’s nothing I can do to control or influence his health, but right now, it’s solely my responsibility.

What’s more, research is now showing that obesity in a child is a predictor for obesity in a younger sibling, regardless of parental weight. That means despite what I were to try to do differently with a future child, the biggest influence will be his or her older brother: an older brother that is currently obese.

A study released in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine revealed that younger siblings look up to their older siblings for behavioral cues and influences, even more so than they look to their parents. They spend large amounts of time together and often seek approval from siblings instead of parents, despite parental involvement.

Not having an older sibling, or a sibling at all, I can’t speak to that exact scenario, but I can surely imagine that if I had a big sister I’d care a lot more about trying to be just like her than trying to be like my adult parents (no offense, mom).

According to the study, “In two-child families, having an obese sibling was associated with risk that was more than five times greater than if the sibling were not obese. While the impact of parental obesity on an older sibling was the same as on an only child — approximately doubling the risk — among younger siblings there was no association with parental obesity.” The risk jumped even higher when the siblings were the same gender — 8.6 times greater for girls and 11.4 times greater for boys.

To me this means it’s even more important to get it right the first time around — or at least do my best to make sure we don’t keep heading down the wrong path.

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