Toddlers who have poor relationships with their moms are more likely to pack on extra killograms as they grow up, a new US study shows.
Tracking nearly 1 000 kids into their teens, researchers found more than a quarter of those who scored lowest on mother-child relationship tests as toddlers went on to become obese at age 15.
By contrast, only 13% of the children who had a good relationship with their mother became obese.
While that doesn't prove cause and effect, researchers say other work has shown links between children's emotional and intellectual development and how they interact with their mother at a young age.
According to Dr Sarah E. Anderson, who headed the new study, it's possible that a stressful childhood could make a lasting impression on kids' brains.
Childhood stress tolls up in adulthood
"There is an overlap in the brain between the areas that govern stress and energy balance," said Dr Anderson, of the Ohio State University College of Public Health in Columbus. "This stress response could be related to obesity through appetite regulation."
Dr David Gozal, a paediatrician not involved in the new work, agreed. But he said unhealthy food and a lack of physical activity and sleep is likely to play a bigger role.
Still, he said, early childhood stress is known to take a toll later in life – both via genetic reprogramming and behavioural changes – and a poor mother-child relationship could be part of the equation.
"What you see in adulthood is obviously the cumulative effect of what has happened earlier in life," said Dr Gozal the physician-in-chief at the Comer Children's Hospital in Chicago.
Kids with bad relations are obese
Dr Anderson's findings, published online in Pediatrics, are based on 977 kids who were videotaped while playing with their mother at about one, two and three years of age.
Researchers then assessed the toddler's relationship to their moms based on the mother's ability to recognise her child's emotional state and respond with warmth as well as the child's tendency to freely explore its environment, a measure of attachment security.
A quarter of the toddlers had a poor-quality relationship to their mothers, whereas 22% had perfect scores at each session. At 15 years, 26% of the kids with relationship trouble were obese – twice as many as those without such problems.
Blaming parents not a solution
However, the gap narrowed as more factors were taken into account, including maternal education and household income.
Today, 17% of all children and adolescents in the US are obese, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Even if the epidemic is fuelled by poor relationships at home, there is no point in chiding mothers, Dr Anderson said.
"Blaming parents is not likely to solve anything," she told Reuters Health. "It's important to recognise that there are many competing demands on parents."
(Reuters Health, December 2011)
Mother- child relationship