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Overweight Infants and Toddlers: Overeating


The main cause for excess weight is overeating. Overeating means consuming more calories each day than are needed for normal activity and growth. Overeating is mainly a bad habit and it's learned during the early years of life. Currently 10% of 2 to 5 year old children in the US are overweight. Any child in a family with a strong tendency toward being overweight needs to be taught healthy eating habits. We want children to eat only when they are hungry and to stop when they are full. It is far easier to teach good eating habits early than to wait until a child starts to show signs of becoming overweight.

How can I help prevent my child from gaining too much weight?

For babies:

  • Try to breast-feed. Breast-feeding allows babies to control the amount of milk they drink. They stop when they are full. Overfeeding by breast is unusual.
  • Avoid grazing. Grazing is eating very frequently, while the stomach is still full.
  • If breast-feeding, gradually advance the nursing interval: 2 hours or longer by 1 month of age, 3 hours by 2 months of age.
  • If bottle-feeding, try to feed your infant every 2 hours or longer at birth, and 3 hours or longer from 2 to 6 months of age. Change to 3 meals a day plus 2 small snacks by 6 months of age.
  • Feed your child slowly, rather than rapidly. Don't try to hurry your child's pace of eating. It takes 15 to 20 minutes of eating for most babies to feel full.
  • Don't make your baby finish every bottle. After she signals she is full by turning her head or not opening her mouth, don't encourage your child to eat more.
  • Avoid comfort feedings. Don't feed your baby every time he cries. Most crying babies want to be held and cuddled or may be thirsty and just need some water. Teach your infant to use human contact (rather than food) to relieve stress and discomfort.
  • Don't assume a sucking baby is hungry. Your baby may just want a pacifier or help with finding her thumb.
  • Avoid giving solid food to your child until he is at least 4 months old.
  • Discontinue breast and bottle feeding by 12 months of age. A study found that delayed weaning was associated with more obesity, probably because of its association with comfort feeding.

For toddlers:

  • Only feed for hunger. Help your child recognize hunger and only to eat when he's hungry. Teach him not to eat for other cues such as when he's bored, lonely, stressed, watching videos, etc.
  • Avoid any grazing. Grazing is eating at frequent intervals instead of waiting until he is hungry. If a child rarely experiences hunger, the feeling of hunger may cause him to be upset.
  • From the beginning, try to teach your child to stop eating when she feels full. Overfeeding teaches a child to overeat.
  • Don't deny your child food, however, if she is hungry. While parents have control over what they serve, they have little control over the amount eaten.
  • Don't insist that your child finish a jar of baby food or clean his plate.
  • Avoid tote bottles. Don't allow your child to keep a bottle or sippy cup with her during the day or night. Children who are allowed to carry a bottle around with them learn to use food for comforting and also damage their tooth enamel.
  • Don't give your child food as a way to distract him or keep him occupied. Instead, give him something to play with when you need some free time.
  • Avoid giving children bottles, sippy cups, or other snacks while they are in car seats or strollers. (using food for distraction)
  • Use praise and physical affection instead of food as a reward for good behavior.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call during office hours if:

  • You are uncertain if your child is overweight.
  • You are concerned about your child's weight.

Written by B.D. Schmitt, MD, author of "Your Child's Health," Bantam Books.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2009-06-23
Last reviewed: 2010-06-02

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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