Mothers who push their toddlers to eat more at snack time may end up with slightly chubbier children by the age of three, according to a U.S. study.
Researchers whose findings appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition said that such parents might end up overriding their child’s ability to listen to their body’s natural “satiety signals” - the brain’s way of saying it’s time to stop eating.
It wasn’t clear if parental pushiness actually led to excess weight gain, and the weight differences in the study were small. But a number of previous studies have pointed to links between “controlling” mealtime behavior by parents and their children’s risk of being overweight.
Toddlers of course are notoriously finicky eaters, and parents often worry their child might not be eating enough, said Julie Lumeng, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who led the study.
“So their toddler doesn’t want to eat, but parents are saying, ‘Come on honey. Eat, eat, eat!’” she said.
Previous studies relied on questionnaires that essentially asked parents if they were pushy at the dinner table, but Lumeng and her colleagues decided to observe what mothers were actually doing.
To do that, they had 1,218 mothers come to their research lab, then videotaped them during a 10-minute snack with their child. Families came at three different times - when the child was 15 months-old, two years-old and three years-old.
Overall, mothers who were the most “intrusive” during the snacks tended to have heavier children, even when factors such as family income and race were taken into account.
“Intrusive” in this study meant pushing toddlers to eat rather than offering food, such as saying “You know you like it, take another bite,” Lumeng said.
Lower-income and minority children generally have a higher risk of obesity than white, middle-class children, and studies have found that their mothers also tend to be more controlling at mealtimes, the authors noted.
But the association between pushiness and weight was a small one.
If all of a mother’s snack time “prompts” were of the assertive variety, her child would move up slightly on the body mass index (BMI) scale, a measure of weight against height. The difference was akin to moving to the 57th from the 50th percentile, Lumeng said.
She also noted that since the research was done in a lab, it doesn’t reflect what happens at home. To address this, she and her colleagues are starting a study where they will have low-income families video typical meals at home.
For now, Lumeng suggests that parents follow current expert thinking: give young children healthy food, but allow them to control how much they eat at a time.
“Children will naturally eat the proper amount. Often, the kids (that) parents are worried about are actually a very healthy weight,” she said.
Julie C Lumeng,
Tina N Ozbeki,
Danielle P Appugliese,
Robert F Corwyn, and
Robert H Bradley
Conclusions: Assertive prompting and an intrusive style had small but significant associations with greater child adiposity. Future work should focus on maternal motivations for assertive and intrusive feeding styles and mechanisms through which these feeding styles might increase child adiposity.