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Baby fat's not as cute as you think

Sure, that hefty infant's adorable. But the extra weight he’s carrying might be unhealthy, a new study says.

By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
Published August 9, 2006

Just look at those cute little chubby cheeks. Those adorable round baby bellies. Those dimpled little legs.

Yes, look — because those babies are fat, scientists say. Adults, teens and children already have been labeled as getting fatter in other studies.

Now, a new study by Harvard researchers says that nobody has escaped: even babies are more likely to be fat today than they were 20 years ago.

“The obesity epidemic has not spared even our youngest children,’’ said Dr. Matthew Gillman, associate professor in Ambulatory Care and Prevention at Harvard Medical School and senior author of the study, published in the July issue of the journal Obesity.

“One of the biggest implications of these findings is that we need to think about obesity prevention at the earliest stages of human development, even before birth.’’

Not all scientists agree. The study does a good job of documenting that babies are getting heavier, said Dr. Jamie Calabrese, a member of the obesity task force for the American Academy of Pediatrics and medical director of The Children’s Institute, a Pittsburgh pediatric rehabilitation hospital.
But is that a problem?

Just because babies are bigger doesn’t mean they’re overweight, Calabrese said.

“You can say they’re heavier, but who’s to say that’s not healthier?” she said.

For example, Clearwater toddler Hailey Dolen was a “chunky baby,’’ her parents say. Now two and slender, Hailey was above the 100th percentile on pediatric growth charts as an infant, but then slimmed down.

“She lost weight when she started running around,” said her father, Sam Dolen.
Other doctors, however, say they are concerned.

“I think it’s something we definitely watch,’’ said Dr. Maria L. Cannarozzi, an associate professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. “We certainly need to focus on this earlier, not just waiting until these kids become chunky toddlers and school-age kids.’’

But doctors suggest subtle changes, such as switching older babies to low-fat milk earlier, rather than drastic diets.

The study followed more than 120,000 children under age 6 for 22 years and through more than 360,000 doctor visits. More than 72,000 of those visits were made by babies six months old or younger.

Researchers classified infants as “overweight” if their weight compared to height was at or above the 95th percentile of federal growth charts, and as “at risk for overweight” if they were at the 85th to 95th percentile.

Over time, children in every age group got heavier, with the percentage of overweight children rising from 6.3 percent in 1980-81 to 10 percent in 2001. But the weight increase for babies was striking, especially because their weight has rarely been studied this way.

“It looks very consistent with what we’ve seen across the board,’’ said Morgan Downey, executive director of the American Obesity Association.

“Elderly people are getting heavier. Teens are getting heavier. Even our pets are getting heavier. It’s very sobering to think about what it means to have our future generations start off life in this situation.”

Why babies are getting heftier is less clear, but researchers have some ideas. It starts with heavier moms, Gillman said. Women are more likely to be overweight before they get pregnant, to gain more weight during pregnancy, and to have diabetes.

Babies who drink formula, rather than breast-feed, are more likely to become overweight. Many babies are starting solid food earlier, at 4 to 6 months. And many parents believe nothing is as cute as a baby with a big roly-poly tummy.

“The other question is, are we overfeeding them?’’ Cannarozzi said. “Is that part of the culture? ... There’s that perception of a big, fat, healthy baby.’’

And yet it’s babies who are most likely to put on weight without ill effect, Calabrese said. As children of all ages grow, she said, they often seem to get chunkier just before a growth spurt.

“Your body can only do one thing at a time, either pork you up or stretch you out,’’ she said. “You’re growing incredibly rapidly during those first 24 months. It would make sense that the body lays down some fat tissue, in anticipation of laying down some long bones.’’

Doctors might disagree about what a baby should weigh, but they agreed that healthy habits for babies can keep them from becoming overweight as they age.

“Breast-fed babies, some of them can be really chunky around four to six months,’’ said Tampa pediatrician Dr. Marcy Baker. “But they tend to level out. We don’t worry about that at all.’’

Baker looks more closely if a tubby tot is drinking formula or eating solid foods. She once discovered the parents of a hefty 9-month-old were feeding their child Reese’s peanut-butter cups.

But more often, she said, the reasons are more subtle. Some parents tend to feed their baby all of each bottle, or to reach for food at every baby cry.

“What we try to do is make sure parents are going by their babies’ natural cues,’’ she said.

That’s what happened when Hailey Dolen was a baby. She would wake up three or four times each night, and her anxious parents fed her each time.

Sam and Shaunna Dolen expect their second child this month, and they say this baby will get different treatment.

“Definitely not as many bottles at night,’’ Shaunna Dolen said.

[Last modified August 9, 2006, 21:23:39]

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