Once upon a time having a chubby toddler was a sign of prosperity. Parents, grandparents and friends loved to pinch the little one’s plump cheeks and say something along the lines of “look at those fat little legs and cheeks… how adorable!”
Little fat legs and cheeks are no longer a sign of wealth or health. They’re more likely to be an indicator of obesity or morbid obesity in a baby or toddler. Amazingly, many moms still believe that chubby equals cute and that their roly-poly child will eventually grow out of the “baby fat.”
According to a new study, parents of overweight toddlers mistakenly think their children are normal weight, and mothers of normal weight or underweight children wish their little ones were plumper.
The findings were based on a study that involved 281 mothers from low-income households who had children between ages 12 and 32 months. Mothers were shown seven silhouettes of toddlers of various sizes, and asked to choose the silhouette that best matched their child.
About 30 percent of children were considered overweight by the researchers, based on a ratio of the child's weight and length.
About 70 percent of all mothers in the study were inaccurate in their assessments of their child's size, meaning they chose a silhouette that was at least two sizes larger or smaller than their child's true size.
Mothers of underweight children often knew their child was not healthy—they were 9.5 times more likely to choose the silhouette that matched their child's body size compared with mothers of healthy-weight children.
About 70 percent of mothers of healthy-weight children, and 80 percent of mothers of overweight children said they were satisfied with their child's body size. Four percent of mothers of overweight children even wished their child were even larger, the researchers said.
"That suggests we may have a lot of parents who are trying to fatten up their babies," said Dr. Eliana Perrin of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, who wrote a commentary on the research in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
Because mothers in the study were primarily from low-income households, and most were overweight or obese themselves, the findings may not be an indication of the population as a whole, the researchers said.
"There's this misperception that a chubby infant or toddler is a healthy infant or toddler," said study researcher Erin R. Hager, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics, Growth and Nutrition. In addition, with so many overweight and obese kids in the United States, the view of what is a normal may be shifting, and now larger is the new norm, Hager said.
Researchers also noted that doctors should also help parents be more aware of what constitutes a healthy weight for toddlers.
The only real way for parents to know if their child is overweight is to plot their weight and length on a growth chart for their age, Hager said. Children are considered overweight if they fall in the 85th to 94th percentiles of the growth charts, and obese if they are in the 95th percentile or higher.
The child’s pediatrician or family doctor could be adding to the parent’s confusion.
When doctors use the charts, they tend to plot weight and height separately, and without both pieces of information, parents end up not knowing that their child is above normal size for his age, Hager said.
A recent study found more than 75 percent of parents of overweight children said that their doctors never told them that their child was overweight.
The concern among scientists is that children's eating habits are shaped when they are very young, said Dr. Stephen Cook, a member of the Executive Committee of the Section on Obesity for the American Academy of Pediatrics and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
"Kids who gain weight as toddlers tend to hold onto weight longer and tend to be overweight and obese in adolescence and adulthood," said Cook, who conducted a similar study in older children.
Some researchers feel that with the epidemic of obesity in this country, people are losing the ability to discern what is a healthy weight and what is overweight or obese. That’s not good news for adults or children. But as more information becomes available for parents to research and read, awareness is slowly improving. If you’re concerned your child is carrying too many pounds for his or her height and weight, check with your pediatrician or family doctor and ask for an evaluation.