Brigham Young University sociology professors Ben Gibbs and
Renata Forste found that clinical obesity at 24 months of age strongly traces
back to infant feeding.
“If you are overweight at age two, it puts you on a
trajectory where you are likely to be overweight into middle childhood and
adolescence and as an adult,” said Forste. “That’s a big concern.”
The BYU researchers analysed data from more than 8 000
families and found that babies predominantly fed formula were 2.5 times more
likely to become obese toddlers than babies who were breastfed for the first
But, the study authors argue, this pattern is not just about
“There seems to be this cluster of infant feeding patterns
that promote childhood obesity,” said Gibbs, lead author of the study that
appears in Pediatric Obesity.
The risk factors
Putting babies to bed with a bottle increased the risk of
childhood obesity by 36%. And introducing solid foods too soon – before four
months of age – increased a child’s risk of obesity by 40%.
“Developing this pattern of needing to eat before you go to
sleep, those kinds of things discourage children from monitoring their own
eating patterns so they can self-regulate,” Forste said.
Forste said that the nature of breastfeeding lends itself to
helping babies recognise when they feel full and should stop. But that same
kind of skill can be developed by formula-fed infants.
“You can still do things even if you are bottle feeding to
help your child learn to regulate their eating practices and develop healthy
patterns,” Forste said. “When a child is full and pushes away, stop! Don’t
encourage them to finish the whole bottle.”
Breastfeeding rates are lowest in poor and less educated
families. Sally Findley, a public health professor at Columbia University, says
the new BYU study shows that infant feeding practices are the primary reason
that childhood obesity hits hardest below the poverty line.
“Bottle feeding somehow changes the feeding dynamic, and
those who bottle feed, alone or mixed with some breastfeeding, are more likely
to add cereal or sweeteners to their infant’s bottle at an early age, even
before feeding cereal with a spoon,” said Findley.
The next project for Gibbs and Forste is to reevaluate the
link between breastfeeding and cognitive development in childhood. Forste has
previously published research about why women stop breastfeeding.
“The health community is looking to the origins of the
obesity epidemic, and more and more, scholars are looking toward early
childhood,” Gibbs said. “I don’t think this is some nascent, unimportant time
period. It’s very critical.”