I have an overweight toddler.
Not something I thought I’d ever be saying when I was pregnant with my first child. I didn’t think I would need to be worried about such a thing, as I made sure everything I put in my body as I grew that little babe was as healthy as possible. I made sure to stay within the recommended weight gain guidelines for pregnancy, as I knew my being overweight could lead to the same in my son. I never thought I’d have to worry about my young child’s weight because my husband and I are both at a healthy weight ourselves. I never thought I’d have to worry about it because we worked so hard to teach my son good, healthy habits. We fed him veggies as his first foods, we don’t regularly eat sweets or junk, and we encourage active, physical play every single day.
But here we are, almost three years later, with a child officially categorized as “obese.” As a dietitian, it hurts because I know the potential risks and struggles this could lead to later in his life, both physically and emotionally. But as a parent, it’s a different experience. Here’s what I’ve learned from having an overweight toddler.
1. Everyone judges
It doesn’t matter so much which way they judge, but everyone has an opinion. From telling us not to worry, “It’s just baby fat,” to telling us we better hurry up and put him on a diet, we get an earful on a regular basis. To this day I still don’t understand why it’s anybody’s business or why people think it’s OK to share their unsolicited thoughts on the matter. I get judged if I don’t let him eat cupcakes; I get judged if I give him an extra snack. In the eyes of others, you can never win.
2. Sometimes doing things “right” isn’t enough
This morning my son told me his favorite food is oatmeal. The other day it was red peppers. The kid chows down on hummus and grapes. (Not together. OK, sometimes together.) He eats healthier than 90% of adults I know. He never, ever stops moving. He would run and ride his bike all day if he could. So he eats well and he’s active; he’s still overweight. Sometimes it’s just not as easy as that.
3. Meal patterns matter more than amounts
We’ve tried numerous approaches to eating habits and behaviors over the past few years, and we’ve learned in practice what I’ve always known in theory as a dietitian – patterns matter more than specifics. Establishing loose guidelines for how often we eat (and keeping those consistent) has brought about better results than controlling how much food he can have. If it’s “lunchtime,” let’s say, and he’s still hungry after finishing what’s on his plate, he gets more. If he’s just randomly asking for a snack “just because,” he waits until it’s really time to eat again. It helps establish routine and parameters without overruling the signals his body is sending. It can be hard to teach healthy habits without unintentionally teaching that some foods are “bad.” Creating a rhythm lets him understand this better.
4. It gets hard to judge what’s normal
My son wasn’t always overweight. In fact, he was just the opposite. Diagnosed with failure to thrive as an infant, he was so tiny for so long. And then things flip-flopped and he starting growing and growing and growing. It was obvious how big he was, but it was refreshing because we could finally feel convinced he was well-nourished and not starving all the time. As his growth slowed, we were optimistic because he was finally “growing into” his weight. Then we were caught off guard at a doctor’s appointment when he’d actually gone up in weight on the growth chart, thus getting the obese rating. When you see opposite extremes, it gets hard to distinguish what’s normal and just different.
5. You’re always worried it’s something else
Like I said, he eats healthy and gets plenty of physical activity, yet he’s still overweight. That, in addition to previous health problems he had as an infant, gives us constant nagging in the very back of our minds that something else could be going on. When you couple that with the above (being unable to determine “normal”), it gets pretty hard not to worry all the time.
6. You’ll be shocked at how many people think obesity isn’t a problem
I hear more people tell me it’s “normal” for him to be overweight because he’s “only two.” They’ll tell me babies and toddlers are supposed to be fat and chubby and roly-poly; that fat kids don’t grow into fat adults. While sometimes that’s the natural course for kids, overall, that’s just not true. Adult weight problems do start in childhood.
7. You learn to let go and trust your gut
We’ve taken the steps we’ve needed to take. We fought for his health as an infant (reflux, allergic colitis, FPIES). We’ve taken steps to ensure healthy behaviors and habits that hopefully will stick with him. We’ve followed up consistently with the doctor. Now that we feel good about a lack of a more serious underlying issue, it’s time to relax and see what happens as he continues to grow and get older. Sometimes you need to take action; other times you just need to sit back and let things take their course.More On