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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?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (183 Responses)
  1. Mandy

    The fact is that breastfed and formula-fed babies follow different growth curves. Breastfed babies typically gain a lot in the first 6 mos. and then slow down in the second 6 mos. My second child was 18 lbs. at 4 months, started crawling at 5 mos. and gained very slowly for the rest of his first year, weighing in at 21 lbs. on his first birthday. He's now a tall, thin, athletic soon-to-be kindergartener. We also start big. He was 9 lbs. at birth. I was 10 lbs. at birth, a chubby baby, and am 5'7" and 130 lbs. as an adult.
    Formula-fed babies follow a linear growth curve and have higher rates of obesity later on. You can't compare the two in any logical way.

    February 17, 2010 at 14:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Beanie's Mama

    This article and posted comments make me think of an experience I had while living in Berlin, Germany. One day it was closing in on lunchtime and a colleague said, "Ich brauche Narhurng." – which translated literally means I need nourishment. In high school German, we were taught "Ich habe Hunger." – meaning I am hungry. It is neat to consider the difference between eating to make the hunger go away versus eating to nourish our bodies.

    Until 5 months of age, my daughter was breast fed on demand. She controlled her caloric intake, not me. Today at 14 months, she still controls her caloric intake – what I control is the variety of food groups available. She acts hungry for a snack; she sits in her high chair and is offered grapes, whole wheat pitas with hummus, veggie patties, frozen fruit chunks, oh, and she loves red beets. She is not offered cookies, pudding, donuts, etc. She acts full, the food is taken away and offered again the next time she is hungry. She LOVES to drink water, because I suppose at 14 months, drinking out of an adult water bottle is one of life's most amazing events.

    Does that mean that she has never eaten mac and cheese, cupcakes, fried chicken, ramen noodles, or ice cream? Or she has never had a sip of soda or chocolate milk? No, she has tasted all of the above, but they do not count for a substantial portion of her diet.

    I think it boils down to this- you are a parent. LEAD BY EXAMPLE. Prepare and eat healthy foods. Drink tons of water. But still let yourself get takeout once in a while. Do not stress out over food. Take walks and think of exercise as fun. I know these latest mid-Atlantic blizzards have made going for taboggan walks in the snow a great activity. Also, while the little one was napping my husband and I had races shoveling snow. (Corny, but SO much fun!) Your child is dying to do everything you do. It is their nature. You live healthy – they live healthy.

    February 17, 2010 at 14:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. LC

    Really? Age 6 to 8 is too late to change eating habits? Then why should adults even bother with diets and exercise?

    And what about exclusively breastfed babies? Are you really going to limit a 3 month old's intake of breastmilk?

    Give me a break. This is ridiculous.

    February 17, 2010 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Renee

    As a mother of two my boys are big yes. They are in the 90 percentile of growth for boys. They are big boys which is fine because they are mobile. My oldest is always on the run and eats healthy. A two year old who loves his vegetables. Some people do not watch what their children eat and they do not receive good exercise. It is up to the parents to plan healthy meals and get the children out of the house instead in front of the tv. Parents need to slow down their work roles and focus more on the children. Less time worrying about work and more time with the family. That is what I do and I am a full time mother, a full time worker, and a full time student.

    February 17, 2010 at 15:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Stephanie

    Limiting breastmilk for a 3month old ?!?! RUBBISH !
    Be careful too about limiting formula unless baby drinking
    way over the 4 – 5 oz. that doctor reccommends per feeding
    or eating more often than every 3 hours.
    What should be addressed is the babies that are allowed,
    even encouraged to eat junk food – no child under 5 years
    should be allowed to even look at, let alone eat french fries
    or processed chicken nuggets, or mystery meat hamburgers.
    It is so easy to feed pre-schoolers natural home cooked meals.
    I can't even address parents who don't do this and allow small
    children to become addicted to processed food. As with adults,
    portion control is the answer. Every parent should be aware of
    the size of their child's palm – because that is the portion size
    he/she should be eating.
    McDonald's, Wendy's, BurgerKing and the like should be treats
    offered a few times a year. More than that is criminal. Wise up
    and slim down.

    February 17, 2010 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Lis

    I have a 7 month old boy who was born weighting 8 pounds. At 7 months he weights 25 pounds and has 31.5 inches in length. The pediatrician told me " you have a huge baby". However, he said this does NOt mean necessarily that he will be a huge adult. My baby has the meassurements of a 12 -18 month old kid. I worry because we have obesity in both sides of our family ( my Dad was obese and lost the weight and my mother in law is extremely obese). I breast fed for 4 months and since my son turn 6 months the doctor told me to feed him all types of foods (except honey, nuts, citrus, and eggs). Formula consumption is aprox 30 onz a day but he has breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I hope taht as he starts crawling he will start slimming down.

    February 17, 2010 at 16:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Stephanie

    Addressed to Lis : are you saying your 7 month old actually eats
    (food) three meals a day and drinks 30 oz of formula in addition
    to that ? That is way too much. Please discuss this with your
    pediatrician as soon as possible. Perhaps you could offer water
    in some of those bottles ?

    February 17, 2010 at 16:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Alexandra

    To Jaclyn and A New Mom and all the others who are considering taking this seriously:

    STOP!! This is the most ridiculous bunch of garbage I've ever heard. PLEASE, especially if you're breastfeeding, do NOT put your young child on a diet. If I could attach a picture of myselft when I was a baby, I was huge, with rolls of fat and trunks for legs. My little sister was even bigger. Now, at 28 yrs and after 2 babies (my last only 6 months ago), I'm still a size 2, and my sister is even skinnier than me. I've never been on a diet a day in my life and eat like a horse. If these drs had seen me as a baby, they would have told my mother to put me on a diet – REALLY??! I obviously am not obese. What's more, my 1st son, now 4, was over the 95th % throughout his infancy, and is now fit as a fiddle. The problem does NOT arise when they're 3 months old (although I'm not a fan of formula and could see where this could be a problem), the problem is processed food and too-large portions and tons of fast food. These drs should reassess the children they researched to see what their eating habits were once they started to eat food. Ridiculous!

    February 17, 2010 at 16:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. TM

    Please don't think breastfeeding on demand will cause obesity later in life! Our boys were 8 and 9 lb. babies at birth, although I gained less than 22 lbs. with each pregnancy. The second weighed in at 11 lb., 4 oz. at three weeks. Both were breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months and continued with breast milk until around 15 months. They switched to 2% milk at that point. Yes, they were in the upper part of the growth chart for the first couple of years, but things leveled out after that.

    Today, at ages 23 and 25, they are at 6 feet and 150-160 pounds. They have not encountered any problems with obesity to date.

    February 17, 2010 at 17:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Liane

    The fact is that we cannot apply the same "rules" to breastfed babies as we do to bottlefed babies. There is so much more to breastfeeding than food. Babies are compelled to suck bc this is how they ensure mom's supply will keep up with their growth. There is a certain amount of nursing done each day that doesn't necessarily yield much milk but pre-programs the mom's body to make a bit more milk for the next day. Plus, nursing (and the skin-to-skin that goes with it) can help regulate a newborns respiration, heart rate and sugar levels.
    If a baby is being fed from the bottle, either mom's milk or formula - and we poked a bottle in it's mouth as a source of comfort and the baby satisfied her urges to suck at the bottle, she would surely overfeed because there is no ebb and flow with the bottle.

    February 19, 2010 at 19:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Andrea-new mom

    This is one of the most enraging articles I have ever read. Are we really going to impose our society's expectations for body image on our INFANTS?? This is disgusting and disgraceful. Yes, eating habits are important for children (mimicking their parents of course). But infants do not mimic behavior...they eat for a variety of reasons, none of them equivalent to adult behavior leading to obesity.

    My 6 month baby girl is in the 85th percentile for her age. I am currently exclusively pumping for her (breastmilk out of a bottle) and more often than not have people make comments about her being chubby. My pediatrician is happy with her development-she is healthy that is all that matters.

    February 22, 2010 at 12:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Shanna

    Lis: Did your doctor tell you that your baby's weight was perfect for your baby's height? Because he is. I too have a 7 month old who is 25 pounds and 31 inches long. Her weight is in perfect proportion to her height. She is well off the charts.. especially since she is a female. It's when you have a shorter baby with that weight that there should be a concern.. or if neither parents are tall.

    I am 5'10 and her father is 6'7" so it's expected that we would have a large baby. We were both large babies as well and are both now slim adults.
    Our 7 month of baby girl wears 2T bottoms and 3T tops and has lots of huge rolls but her weight is absolutely bang on with her height. And If the lady named JILLIAN ever criticized me for feeding my baby ice cream because she is chubby I think I would have to tell her off :)
    A chubby baby does not mean they are overfed or obese. My chubby baby actually eats the minimum of what babies her age are suppose to eat. She eats 26-28 ounces of formula and 2 baby food meals. Unless you are the babies pediatrician you have no right to call feeding your baby abuse. That's just a horrible thing to say.

    Also STEPHANIE: NEVER feed a young baby water. A tiny amount is ok but that is it. You can actually kill a baby by diluting it's formula with water or offering them too much water. Too much water for a baby at 7 months is a huge no no. Also her baby is eating exactly the right amount. 26-40 ounces of formula is what a baby at their age should be drinking on top of 2-3 meals of baby food.

    I have been concerned about my baby's weight because of her eating so little but she has had her thyroid tested and it is fine. Her iron is low and we are dealing with that but besides that she is happy and healthy chubby baby girl. And do I ever love her little rolls. I think it's the cutest thing! Enjoy them why they have them because they don't usually last.

    btw: I got all my information from my doctors who have tons of experience.

    June 2, 2010 at 21:10 | Report abuse | Reply
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    July 6, 2010 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Kate

    What a waste of time with this article. So an extra pound at 3 months old tells everything about later life and it maybe too late to change.

    So surrender people, your mom or luck decided your future at 3 months, diet and exercise are a waste.

    September 17, 2010 at 12:35 | Report abuse | Reply
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  16. Dawn

    My daughter is almost 9 and since about the age of 6 has had a firm but chunky midsection. She is active and plays softball and is on swim team as well as spending alot of recreational time playing out of doors. She was 8 lbs 4 oz and 22 ins at birth but has always been in the 100th percentile for both since about 12 months. She was breastfed her first year, and we do eat processed 'convenience" foods or allow sodas, chips and candy as a regular part of our diets. (parties and movie theaters, etc. are exceptions).

    My daughter at one month before her 9th birthday is a hair shy of 5 ft. and weighs 110. Her BMI places her as 'overweight'. I am afraid to limit her food because she already asks if she looks 'fat' and the snacks she does eat are typically fruits, edamame, yogurt, pretzels, etc. Our meals consist typically of lean protein, veggies and sometimes carbs so when she asks for seconds I usually allow it. Again, she plays hard and usually sits still only to do homework so I feel like she probably does work up an appetite. I want her to stay healthy, but don't want her to become obsessed with losing weight. I am almost 6 ft tall myself and have struggled in the past (but as an adult) with weight gain. I now maintain my weight at 150 not by 'dieting' but by healthy choices and staying active. Is there more I should be doing to help my daughter? I think she looks beautiful, but her pediatrician said she was too heavy and as I said, my daughter dislikes her midsection being chubby, too. I'm just grateful she is healthy and bright but am I being neglectful?

    October 13, 2010 at 08:15 | Report abuse | Reply
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