My oldest son was a fat baby. He doubled his birth weight in two months and was a solid 20 pounds by the time he was 5 months old. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of it, but everyone else seemed to have something to say:
“He’s such a cute little butterball!”
“Whoa, now there’s a healthy baby.”
“What do you feed that kid?!”
And in my new-mom, deer-in-the-headlights way, I was speechless. Is this something I should be concerned about? Is my baby overweight? At the time, I told myself he was fine. He was a baby. Babies were supposed to be chubby . . . right? But I secretly worried. Would I even be able to tell if he were overweight? Would I know when his chubbiness made the move from “healthy” to “unhealthy”?
It seems as though most parents don’t know when their kids make that change. A healthful, roly-poly toddler becomes a worrisomely overweight preschooler without giving any notice. We know this because of a recent analysis of more than a hundred studies that showed that two-thirds of parents judged their children to be lighter than they really are. (It wasn’t specified whether the parents misjudged their children’s actual poundage, or whether they judged their overweight or obese children to be closer to “normal” weight than they actually were.)
The implication is that if parents are blind to the fact that their child is overweight, they are not likely to do anything to help them achieve a healthier weight. That is a very important problem that should be resolved — and can be as parents attend regular checkups with their child’s pediatrician and discuss healthy weight, healthful eating, and leading an active lifestyle.
But I think the more interesting and difficult question comes from the fact that it was the parents of 2-5 year-olds who were the most likely to misjudge the weight of their children. This is significant not only because children at this age are making the transition from chubby, relatively sedentary babyhood to active toddlerhood, but also because it appears as though children who are overweight by age 5 are 4 times as likely to be obese adolescents.
Now, we don’t want to get too worked up about our emerging toddlers being off the growth charts. Chances are that they will stretch out — especially if parents are attentive to their kids’ diet. We don’t want, or expect, kids to go from chubby babies to lanky preschoolers overnight. But we also don’t want to be telling ourselves “it’s just baby weight” until they start kindergarten. If we do that, we’re burying our heads in the sand a little bit, and possibly setting them up for struggles with weight, health, and self-confidence issues down the road.
Where the line is, I don’t know. My own son “stretched out” by the time he was 3 years old and has been holding steady at “average” for the past 4 years. But I still remember clearly the worry and anxiety that I had for him and his health even at that young age, and the balance I was trying to strike between not wanting to give him a complex and hoping I was nurturing and nourishing him as well as I could. (Though, of course, he would have been completely oblivious to both.)
It’s a tricky road to navigate during that age. As parents, we want to be relaxed and patient as we wait to see how our toddlers’ bodies develop while they become more active, but we also need to be vigilant about modeling healthy habits and monitoring the variety and quantity of food they eat. No wonder so many parents find it difficult to see when their “baby” makes that subtle switch between “chubby” and “overweight.”
photo credit: Lizzie Heiselt