Tough Home Life for Toddlers Tied to Obesity

Those with a high cumulative risk at both ages were not more likely to be obese at age 5, although the relationship approached statistical significance (OR 1.9, 95% CI 0.9 to 4.0).

The researchers noted that the lack of similar associations among boys could be related to differences in how boys and girls cope with stress, with girls more likely to respond with emotional and binge eating.

As for the girls, the relationship between social stressors and obesity could reflect parenting behaviors, including the provision of unhealthy foods, use of food as a means of comforting a child, a lack of physical activity, and decreased availability for caretaking, according to Suglia and colleagues.

Researchers have found that mothers who don’t bond well with their toddlers may end up with obesity as a health issue in their children as they grow. Why? Toddlers, being deprived of the nurturing care that they crave from their mothers, turn to food for emotional comfort.

The study, which will be revealed in Pediatrics magazine January 2012, involved 1,000 toddlers between the ages of 15 months and 3 years of age, and their bonds with their mothers. For 15 minute intervals of play with or near their mothers, researchers studied how children reacted around their mothers during times in which mothers should notice and acknowledge their children’s behavior or play.

Toddlers who seemed far more independent from their mothers or who shied away from their mother’s comfort were shown to be twice as likely to be obese by age 15 than toddlers who came close to their mothers or who would not leave their mother’s side.

But, they added, there could be more direct biological mechanisms to explain the associations.

“Repeated stimulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary axis by environmental stressors may elevate cortisol levels, dysregulate neuroendocrine mediators of the reward pathway, and influence compulsive feeding practices as well as visceral fat accumulation,” they wrote.

They acknowledged some limitations of the study, including the loss of some potential participants to follow up. Also, the assessment of food insecurity and maternal substance use was not done with a standardized tool. There also may have been the possible influence of social desirability bias on the mothers’ reports.

Suglia was supported by a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Her co-authors reported support from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the William T. Grant Foundation, and the Office of Research on Women’s Health. The Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The authors reported that they had no conflicts of interest.

Primary source: Pediatrics
Source reference: Suglia S, et al"Cumulative social risk and obesity in early childhood” Pediatrics 2012; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-2456.

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