Infants who receive warmth and sensitivity from mothers are less prone to obesity, says new study

More than 36% of the children at 7 years old, who did not receive attention from their mothers, were found to have obesity, which is nearly double the national childhood obesity rate of 18.5%


                            Infants who receive warmth and sensitivity from mothers are less prone to obesity, says new study

Infants who receive warmth and sensitivity from their mothers are less prone to obesity, finds a new study. 

Home environments that encourage "pleasurable behaviors" such as active play between the mother and the child — as an alternative to eating — can help mitigate a child's food-seeking behavior and thus change the trajectory of weight gain in future, say researchers from the University at Buffalo (UB), who conducted the study.

On the other hand, infants who did not receive the same attention began showing signs of obesity even before they turned a year old. And in children who were over seven years old, the rate of obesity was nearly double the national childhood obesity rate of 18.5%, shows analysis. 

The researchers focused on investigating obesity risks in infants whose mothers took to substance use during pregnancy: more than 95% of these mothers took drugs. They also examined infant stress due to low socioeconomic status.

The team wanted to investigate if infants growing up in environments that promote comfort and pleasurable behaviors (free-play interactions) reduces obesity risks (Getty Images)

"The prenatal period is a sensitive period of health and disease development. Insults that happen in the womb have life-long consequences. But despite perturbations in fetal development, our study shows that it is possible to mitigate the effect of these exposures during early childhood by warmth, responsive and sensitive parenting in one's home environment, especially in active play," says lead author Kai Ling Kong, who is an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of Behavioral Health in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

Earlier studies have looked at how infants receiving early and good nutrition are protected from obesity risks. Some studies have suggested that pregnant women should follow a healthy lifestyle, avoid malnutrition and smoking, and moderate their free sugar intake to reduce the risk for child obesity.

But most of the earlier research on parental influences on children's weight has focused on the food domain. And the team wanted to investigate if infants growing up in environments that promote comfort and pleasurable behaviors (free-play interactions) reduces obesity risks.

So the team recruited 172 families for the study from two hospitals in Western New York and tracked their infants until they turned seven months old. They observed how mother-infant interactions played out during feeding and non-feeding situations and their subsequent impacts on obesity risks.

The results showed that infants who were tended by less sensitive mothers had a higher BMI in comparison to those whose mothers were warm and sensitive. They also found that more than 36% of the children at seven years old in the study were found to have obesity.

"The findings indicate that mother-infant free-play interactions are more important than mother-infant interactions during feeding for child health outcomes, especially the development of obesity," says Dr. Kong.

The study, according to the research team, could dictate how the issue can be addressed because an earlier intervention program too demonstrated success in minimizing early rapid weight gain. These parents were instructed on how to identify and respond sensitively to infant hunger and satiety cues, says the team.

The authors believe that obesity risks stemming from lack of warmth and sensitivity from mothers can be addressed in a similar manner. "Results from our current study extend this prior work, indicating that such interventions beginning in early infancy and focusing on play interactions may have a long-lasting impact on obesity risk among high-risk children," Dr. Kong says.

The study has been published in the journal Obesity.

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