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Secure toddlers less likely to become obese teens

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Toddlers with a strong maternal bond may be less likely to be obese teens.

Adolescent obesity could be influenced by whether or not a secure maternal emotional bond exists when a child is a toddler, finds a new investigation. Researchers assessed interactions between toddlers and their mothers in a national analysis, finding that sensitive parenting could influence obesity by age 15.

The finding, published in the January 2012 issue of the journal Pediatrics, suggests childhood obesity could be tackled by finding ways to improve relationships between mothers and their children versus focusing on diet and exercise.

"It is possible that childhood obesity could be influenced by interventions that try to improve the emotional bonds between mothers and children rather than focusing only on children's food intake and activity," said Sarah Anderson, assistant professor of epidemiology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study.

The researchers found the link between emotional insecurity and adolescent obesity in an analysis of 977 participants in the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which revealed details of a mother’s relationship with their child during their toddler years. For the study, trained observers documented interactions between mothers and toddlers when the children were 15, 24 and 36 months old.

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More than 25% of teens with low-quality relationships with their mother’s as a toddler were found to be obese, compared to just 13% who had a strong emotional bond with their mother in early childhood. In the study, 24.7 percent of children were observed as having a poor quality relationship with their mother, showing a strong correlation.

The authors suggest there is a link between early childhood experiences and the limbic system in the brain that controls hunger, thirst and other metabolic processes that affect hormones.

"Sensitive parenting increases the likelihood that a child will have a secure pattern of attachment and develop a healthy response to stress," Anderson said. "A well-regulated stress response could in turn influence how well children sleep and whether they eat in response to emotional distress – just two factors that affect the likelihood for obesity."

The researchers say the link between obesity and a mother’s relationship during a child’s toddler years should be further explored. According to Anderson, "The evidence here is supportive of the association between a poor-quality maternal-child relationship and an increased chance for adolescent obesity.” The analysis found less prevalence of adolescent obesity among children who were strongly bonded with their mother as a toddler.

Image credit: Morguefile