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Overeating Learned in Infancy: A Study

May 23, 2013 10:07 AM EDT

Overeating, a habit that lends itself to obesity, may be learned in infancy, report researchers from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

In coming to this conclusion, sociology professors Ben Gibbs and Renata Forste analyzed data from more than 8,000 families in which they found that babies predominately fed formula were 2.5 times more likely to become obese toddlers than babies who were breastfed.

The pattern, however, doesn’t just relate to breastfeeding.

Putting babies to bed with a bottle, for example, increased the risk of childhood obesity by 36 percent and introducing solids before four months as much as 40 percent.

And, as Forste put it, “If you are overweight at age two, it puts you on a trajectory where you are likely to be overweight into middle childhood and adolescence and as an adult.”

And that, she said, is a “big concern.”

The reason breastfeeding in particular is so important, however, is that it often changes the relationship between the parents and the child, explained the researchers, from one in which the child is in control of how much he or she eats, to one in which the adult tends persist until the bottle is empty.

“When a child is full and pushes away, stop!” Forste said. “Don’t encourage them to finish the whole bottle.”

Recognizing this link between breastfeeding and obesity is especially enlightening, according to Columbia University public health professor Sally Findley, because the rates of breastfeeding are lowest among poor and less-educated families where obesity hits hardest.

In fact, as far as she’s concerned, the new study by Gibbs and Forste effectively demonstrates that the primary reason for childhood obesity among low-income families is infant feeding practices.

The goal, the researchers explain, is teaching the child to learn to listen to his or her body and respond to it and anything such as developing a pattern of needing to eat before going to bed, discourages children from self-regulating.

"The health community is looking to the origins of the obesity epidemic, and more and more, scholars are looking toward early childhood," Gibss said. "I don't think this is some nascent, unimportant time period. It's very critical."

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