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September 5, 2006

A University of Michigan Health Minute update on important health issues.

What you feed your baby, toddler now may impact their waistline later

U-M expert explains the relationship between early-life feeding practices and obesity

ANN ARBOR, MI – Pureed green beans, mashed sweet potatoes and corn, apples blended with chicken, and rice cereal.

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While it’s not exactly five-star dining, feeding your baby and toddler foods like these that are made with real fruits and vegetables, and loaded with vitamins and nutrients, could be the key to controlling their waistline as they grow through childhood and into adulthood, says Julie Lumeng, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician with the University of Michigan Health System.

“There is a tremendous problem today with childhood obesity in the United States, one that medical researchers and physicians are trying to address head-on by identifying the factors that are contributing to this epidemic,” says Lumeng. “One area of focus has been the possible connection between early feeding practices and a child’s risk for overweight or obesity. Certain aspects of the way children are fed and what they eat very early in life may be related to their later risk for obesity.”

Already, years of research has shown that breastfeeding does protect against obesity risk later in life. With that in mind, Lumeng encourages new moms to make their best effort at breastfeeding, and to seek help from their pediatrician or a lactation consultant if they experience any difficulty.

When it comes to solid foods, though, there is still some debate over the relationship between the age at which solid foods are first introduced and later obesity risk.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents begin to introduce their child to solid food no sooner than four to six months of age.

“Solid foods are great for a child to experience developmentally – learning how to swallow food from a spoon and tasting the flavor – but parents need to keep in mind that, for infants, breast milk still provides the best source of nutrients at a young age,” says Lumeng.

When your child is old enough for solid foods, Lumeng recommends starting with rice cereal, which is a great source of iron. After introducing rice cereal into their diet, it’s then time to move on to vegetables like pureed green beans or carrots.

Health Minute Image“It’s really important for your child’s first flavor experience to be something that’s healthy,” notes Lumeng. “And the more a child tastes a particular food, the greater liking they’ll develop for it.”

For that very reason, Lumeng says it extremely important to keep sweets out of your child’s diet when they’re first learning to eat.

“Pudding or ice cream should not be the first foods your child experiences,” Lumeng cautions. “The more kids eat sweets and sugar, the greater liking they’ll develop for them and the more they’ll want to consume them. Plus, there is some evidence that suggests that the type of food children eat early in life could contribute to their risk for obesity. ”

So how do you get your child to eat – and enjoy – foods like pureed squash, carrots and sweet potatoes that will provide them with the best source of nutrient for their growing bodies? It may be as simple as eating healthy while you’re pregnant.

According to Lumeng, research has shown that women who drink carrot juice through pregnancy have infants who will enjoy pureed carrots more at four months of age than those children whose mothers did not drink carrot juice during pregnancy.

Nursing moms should be vigilant about the foods they eat, too. “Any woman who’s eaten certain foods and then smelled the breast milk knows that those flavors are passed on to the infant. So eating vegetables while nursing should increase your infant’s acceptance of vegetables once they’re ready for solid food,” says Lumeng.

And if your child still won’t eat his vegetables, don’t give up hope. Most infants will need to be exposed to certain food 10 to 15 times before they will begin to accept it and like it.

Lessons in healthy eating shouldn’t stop there. It’s important to continue to teach your children healthy eating habits, especially between the ages of 3 and 5 when experts believe they begin to develop their food preferences, and ability to respond to hunger and satiety.  

“Parents play a key role in helping their children to recognize when they’re full,” says Lumeng. “Let them know that when they’re done eating, it means they’re full. It’s important to use the cues that you’ve picked up on as a parent and give them a word for it. It also will help children understand when they’re actually hungry and when they’re just feeling, bored, tired or frustrated.”

During this critical developmental stage, Lumeng also recommends that parents encourage their child to eat a wide variety of food. Allowing them to sample a range of healthy foods may translate into a healthier diet as they age, potentially lowering their risk for obesity.

For more information, visit these Web sites:
UMHS Your Child: Feeding your baby and toddler (birth to age two)

KidsHealth: Feeding your 8- to 12-month old

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Defining Overweight and Obesity

American Academy of Pediatrics: Overweight and Obesity

 
Written by Krista Hopson

 

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