Chubby baby is at higher risk, obesity expert says

Chubby cheeks might be cute on babies, but they are also an early warning of obesity later in life.

Numerous studies have shown that the risk factors for obesity appear early in life. In fact there's growing evidence that the risk factors start with mothers who are obese. Babies who gain a lot of weight during the first months of life could be on the same path to obesity.

To change that course, parents and pediatricians need to intervene early in a child's life, according to Dr. Nicolas Stettler, a Philadelphia pediatrician and childhood obesity expert. It's easier to prevent obesity than to wait until the child is on the way to being an overweight teen and obese adult.

During a recent stop in Fort Worth, Stettler discussed his research and what parents can do put their babies on a healthier path.

How early does a little extra fat become something parents should be concerned about?

When a kid gains a lot weight in the first four months of life. The more rapidly he gains weight, the more likely he will become an obese child and eventually an obese adult.

How do parents know when their chubby baby is really too fat?

When he rapidly crosses over two or three percentiles on the growth charts.

So obesity risks start at birth?

Before then. Before conception. If the mother gains an excessive amount of weight during pregnancy, the baby is at a higher risk. Gestational diabetes is also a risk factor.

In our culture, people tend to think fat babies are cute. How can that be changed?

It's important for parents to know that the percentile is not a grade, like in school. It is not better for a baby to be in the 90 percentile than in the 50 percentile. It's a matter of perception that higher is better. It's not.

What can parents do?

It's important to give only breast milk for the first four to six months. With breast-feeding it is not possible to overfeed a kid who is not hungry; the baby stops sucking and the milk production stops. But when a baby is bottle fed, parents have a tendency to try to make the baby take more even if he doesn't want it.

What about adding cereal to the bottle when a baby cries at night and doesn't seem to be satisfied with formula?

That's not a good idea. Formula meets all the nutritional needs. The challenge is figuring out the reason the baby is crying -- which is not necessarily because he's hungry.

How can you know if your toddler is overweight?

After age 2 look at the Body Mass Index. Pediatricians should monitor the BMI and watch the growth charts.

What role does genetics play?

Children with obese parents are at a much higher risk. It's some genetics, some what happens in the house.

What can parents do?

Provide healthy, well balanced meals. Fast food should be for special occasions, not a routine. It is normal for young children to refuse new foods but you have to keep exposing them to it. You have to try a new food at least eight times before a kid starts to like it. Decrease sedentary activities. No TV before age 2. No TV in the bedroom.

Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664