MONDAY, March 30, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Babies who gain weight quickly during the first six months of life may be more prone to obesity as toddlers, Harvard researchers report.
"We need to start our preventive methods when children are much younger," said study author Dr. Elsie M. Taveras. "Even in the first couple of weeks of life, we can start guiding parents about how to prevent rapid weight gain in their infants."
While past research has established a link between birth weight and obesity, the impact of factors such as length of gestation, height and lifestyle of the mother were often not considered.
The researchers tracked 559 children who were part of Project Viva, an ongoing study of pregnant women and their children. The babies were measured for weight and height at birth, at 6 months and again at the age of 3.
After adjusting for factors such as the babies' length, researchers found that those who increased their body-mass index (BMI) during their first six months were more likely to be classified as obese at age 3.
"At present, most guidelines around obesity management recommend that we start assessment and treatment of children after the age of 2," Taveras said.
According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly a third of adults in the United States are obese. Obese people are 10 percent to 50 percent more likely to die of all causes. In 2000, the obesity epidemic cost the U.S. health system $117 billion.
"The key indication for this study is the importance of better education about feeding infants," said Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. "Since the study did not look at what children were fed after weaning, it is hard to know if overfeeding then is a contributor."
Addressing this issue may involve simply making minor changes. In Germany, water fountains were installed in 32 schools located in poor areas of two German cities. Teachers then presented four lesson plans to second- and third-grade students about the benefits of water consumption.
The study found that the students who attended these schools were 31 percent less likely to become overweight than those who attended other schools not involved in the study.
Both studies are to be published in the April issue of Pediatrics.
"The researchers themselves identified that we need to study caregiver and infant relationships, since other studies have shown when there is a lack of a bonding during feeding, infants will change what they eat," says Diekman. "In addition, other potential confounders need to be removed, and then the study repeated, to see if weight gain during pregnancy is a factor."
"Our study raises a lot of questions about the reason rapid infant weight gain results in obesity later on," Taveras said. "We need more research to identify the factors that explain this relationship."
Visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health for more information about childhood obesity.