Soothing start to childhood weight problems

Pacifying infants with food may raise likelihood of later obesity

BALTIMORE — Parents who use food to sooth anger- and tantrum-prone infants may raise the likelihood of those youngsters becoming overweight or obese, according to preliminary evidence presented March 13 by psychologist Cynthia Stifter of Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

“This type of parental behavior may promote an association between food and comfort in kids who are temperamentally disposed to anger,” Stifter said at the International Conference on Infant Studies. It’s already known that equating food with comfort is linked to adult obesity.

Stifter directed a survey of 100 mothers of youngsters between 3 months and 3 years old. About half the mothers were overweight or obese.

Mothers who described their children as inclined to getting upset and throwing tantrums also reported having frequently used food to sooth them, especially as a last resort in public places. Temperamentally difficult youngsters weighed increasingly more, relative to height, the more their mothers used food to calm and control them.

Stifter’s team also found that the heaviest children tended to have overweight mothers who rated themselves as poor parents. Long-term studies need to examine whether an early association of food with comfort influences the development of some cases of child and adult obesity, Stifter said. 

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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