Five ways to prevent early childhood obesity

Excessive weight gain in the early years can lead to health problems. AAP

No parent decides to make their child obese. Yet one in five children will be overweight or obese by the time they reach primary school.

We now know that excessive weight gain actually begins much earlier. One in five two-year-olds are already overweight or obese, so our prevention efforts really need to begin from birth.

Contrary to some beliefs, children don’t necessarily lose ‘puppy fat’ as they grow.

Unhealthy weight gain at an early age increases your risk of being overweight in adolescence, with decreased involvement in sport and slowed development of fundamental movement skills.

Excess weight in later childhood increases risks of early onset diabetes, and a range of other physical and social problems.

There’s a lot of confusion about the impact of parents’ actions on their child’s weight. Health information for can be vague and inconsistent; friends, family and the media often make contradictory suggestions.

Parents also have to battle an environment where high calorie, low nutrition foods are marketed directly to children.

The good news is that it’s possible to set up patterns in the first year or two of a child’s life to prevent unhealthy weight gain.

1. Breastfeed for 12 months

Most mothers are able to breastfeed, and breast milk provides all the nutrients an infant needs.

Ideally, mothers should breastfeed for 12 months or longer, or as close to this as is practical.

Early introduction of nutritionally-dense solid foods is unnecessary and can lead to rapid weight gain which is linked to obesity at age three.

Australian Health Departments recommend parents wait until their child is six months old before introducing solids.

2. Limit serving sizes, snacks and avoid juice and soft drinks

The amount of food anyone eats (in relation to their level of physical activity) is important for maintaining a healthy weight.

Once solid foods are being eaten, parents can control what food young children have access to, and they need to!

Children’s stomachs are small, so smaller servings sizes are important. Children adjust quickly to how much food to expect, and do not need large quantities. Extra snacks throughout the day calibrate the child to expect bigger volumes of food.

Juices and soft drinks should be avoided because they add many unnecessary calories for little nutritional gain. Offer water instead.

3. Increase ‘tummy time’ and active play

To develop competent motor skills a child needs to start to explore its environment.

Putting a child on the floor on his or her tummy helps build muscles as the baby practices lifting its head and reaching for objects around it.

Tummy time can start from as early as a couple of months (for short periods) and then increase in duration.

Gradually, babies lift their heads enough to look around and start to prop themselves up using their arms for assistance.

These movements strengthen their backs: a benefit for later core stability and balance. As the child becomes more interactive it is important to play and engage with the child.

Playing active games encourages physical activity. From the child’s perspective, this kind of play links being active to having fun.

4. Watch less TV

Being sedentary is directly linked to being overweight or obese, and watching hours and hours of TV is very sedentary.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommends children watch no more than an hour or two of TV a day, and children under two shouldn’t watch television at all. It’s probably easier to start out tough from day one!

5. Be a positive role model

Children learn from watching their parents, even more than from TV.

Making an effort to be physically active yourself, and trying to eat two serves of fruit and five of vegetables, shows you child right from the beginning this is important and expected behaviour.

As the child gets older, playing a game together instead of just watching TV is good for family dynamics and might actually be fun.

It might not always be easy to control a child’s environment, but following some basic principles should help prevent early childhood obesity.

All of these tips are supported by Health Department recommendations and based on research with first time mothers.