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February 16th, 2010
10:13 AM ET

When is your chubby baby too chubby?

By Caitlin Hagan
CNN Medical Associate Producer

A new study published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics has concluded that "the critical period for preventing childhood obesity...is during the first two years of a child's life and for many by three months of age." It's the first study to identify a so-called "tipping point" in a child's development of obesity. This new finding comes as first lady Michelle Obama is targeting childhood obesity in a new national initiative Let's Move.

"We've been struggling with the older kids, ages 6 to 8, who are already way overweight," says Dr. John W. Harrington of Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia. "And at that age, it's too difficult to change eating habits."

Harrington and his team set out to determine the point at which a child's weight gain becomes unhealthy and leads to overweight.

"We backtracked and said, 'When did this weight first happen?'" says Harrington. "Since the age of 3 or 4 months, these children were overweight as babies...they had normal growth but their weights were averaging well above their heights."

By identifying when the weight gain first develops, Harrington believes pediatricians will be able to intervene early to change poor eating habits in babies and toddlers on track to becoming overweight.

But the study doesn't change the old adage that a chubby baby is still a healthy baby, especially since babies need extra fat for brain, eye, and nerve development. But Harrington argues that babies need less fat in their diets than was once thought.

"Parents feel the need to feed the child; feed them, feed them, feed them" says Harrington. "But they're not watching what the child is doing."

The key for parents is to pay attention to simple cues to ensure that they're not overfeeding their baby. For example, when a baby stops suckling while being breastfed or pulls his face away from his bottle, he may be too full to want more formula even if he's had only half of his usual serving.

Another cue is to watch how frequently your baby drools while feeding. Drooling from the side of his mouth could signal he's eaten enough.

"Your baby can control their eating habits" says Harrington. "And if you allow them to do that, they can control what they take in."

Harrington suggests a feeding schedule of 2 to 3 ounces per feeding during the first few weeks of your baby's life. That should increase to 5 to 6 ounces per feeding by your baby's 6-month mark. But he also cautions that all parents should consult with their peditrician about any concerns they have about feeding practices or their baby's weight.

Do you worry about your baby's weight? How often are you feeding your child?

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.