Positive mother-child interactions during active play may prevent obesity among high-risk infants, study finds.
Parents play a pivotal role in the life-long health outcomes of their children. Parental style, practices, and the parent-child relationship have been linked to child weight development. A positive parent-infant relationship characterized by warmth and sensitivity may be associated with healthy childhood weight gain, whereas parental harshness and neglect may be associated with childhood obesity. Parents not only foster a child’s earliest relationship with food, but they also determine children’s non-food behaviours that contribute to obesity risk. For instance, positive parenting during children’s playtime may prevent obesity through promoting physical activity.
Researchers from the University of Buffalo explored the role of mother-infant behaviours on the development of childhood obesity in a group of high-risk children. Of 216 mother-infant pairs, most mothers in this study were of low socioeconomic status and had used cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine during pregnancy. Both maternal substance use during pregnancy and socioeconomic adversity present major risk factors for childhood obesity later in life.
The authors evaluated mother-infant interactions during feeding and non-feeding scenarios against variables such as maternal sensitivity, warmth, and harshness. For the non-feeding task, mother-infant pairs at seven months of age were invited to play in a room filled with toys. To assess impact on obesity risk, BMI was determined from infant height and body weight, measured at regular intervals until the child was in second grade. The results were published in the journal, Obesity.
“We wanted to examine if early home environments that promote comfort and pleasurable behaviors that are an alternative to eating can mitigate young children’s food-seeking behavior and thus alter the trajectory of weight gain,” said Kai Ling Kong, lead author of the study and assistant professor of pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at University of Buffalo.
While there was no association between feeding interactions and obesity risk, the authors found that maternal warmth and positive child affect during free play was associated with a healthier BMI and reduced obesity risk in these high-risk children. These results suggest that the interactions exhibited during active play may be more important than those displayed during feeding.
To date, the study of parental influence on children’s weight has focused on the role of feeding interactions on childhood obesity. These results point to the importance of positive parenting during active play as a protective factor against obesity in high-risk children.
“The prenatal period is a sensitive period of health and disease development,” said Kong. “Insults that happen in the womb have lifelong consequences. But despite perturbations in fetal development, our study shows that it is possible to mitigate the effect of these exposures during early childhood by warmth, responsive and sensitive parenting in one’s home environment, especially in active play.”
Written by Cheryl Xia, HBMsc
- Kong, K. L., Eiden, R. D. & Paluch, R. A. Early Nonfood Parent‐Infant Interactions and Development of Obesity in a High‐Risk, Diverse Sample. Obesity 27, 1754–1760 (2019).
- David Hill. Study: A mother’s warmth, sensitivity can mitigate obesity risk factors in infants. EurekAlert! (2019).
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