The earlier you start growing a lean child, the greater the chance you’ll be the parent of a lean adult. You’ve heard that the first three years are “formative years” for intellectual and psychological development. Well, these are also important years for forming healthy eating habits. The nutritional habits acquired by the toddler become her norms. This is when she learns what eating is all about and recognizes “This is how my body is supposed to feel.” If the toddler grows up lean, with a lean set point, the child is more likely to stay lean. Try these seven ways to start your baby off lean.
- Breastfeed. Many experts believe that breastfed infants are less likely to become obese than formula-fed infants, but studies comparing the two groups have not produced clear results, partly because of problems with study design and also because many other factors contribute to obesity. Let’s approach this question from the common sense point of view. It seems to us that a breastfeeding baby is more likely to learn healthy appetite control habits, a major factor in determining leanness or obesity.Breastfeeding leaves the infant in control of the feedings, how much he takes, and with a responsive mother, how often he eats. The bottle-feeding mother can take control of the feeding away from the baby. She counts ounces and watches the clock. A breastfeeding mother is more likely to watch the baby for cues. As she reinforces the baby’s cues, he learns to trust his body’s signals. An interesting study showed that formula-fed infants, if allowed to determine for themselves how much formula to drink, can self-regulate the total daily calories quite well. Six- week-old infants can adjust their formula intake according to their calorie needs. If the experimenter substituted a more dilute, lower calorie formula, the infants drank more, making adjustments for the lower energy levels. With bottlefeeding, maternal control can override the infant’s automatic regulatory ability as mother urges the baby to take “just a little bit more.” Baby comes to expect that “stuffed” feeling after a meal and eventually seeks it out for herself.
A breastfed baby gets custom-calorie milk. The fat content of breastmilk changes during each feeding and also at different periods of the day. At the beginning of a nursing, when a baby is most hungry, she gets a large volume of foremilk, rich in protein and carbohydrates, but low in calories. If the baby is very hungry, he continues sucking and the fat levels in the milk rise (the “hindmilk”), telling the infant that it’s time to slow down because his tummy is getting full. When you watch breastfeeding babies at the end of a feeding, you will notice how they radiate contentment, sucking needs and appetite both completely satisfied. When a breastfeeding baby is thirsty rather than hungry, or just wants to soothe himself, baby sucks in a way that makes the breast deliver only the lower calorie foremilk for a quick pick-me-up or some “calm me down” comfort. A formula-fed baby receives the same kind of formula, regardless of whether he is hungry, thirsty, or just needs to suck for comfort. Responding to the baby or toddler’s different needs for food and comfort is more complicated with bottle-feedings. Allowing a toddler to walk around with a bottle just to “keep him quiet” or offering formula at every peep from an infant could condition the child to connect eating with comforting. Breastfeeding conditions the child to connect comfort with a person. Developmentally these are known as patterns of association, whereby an infant stores in the file library of their developing brain these associations to be replayed later on.
The fat content of mother’s milk changes as baby’s growth decelerates. Breastmilk changes from “whole milk” to “reduced fat” sometime during the second half of the first year, another biological sign that Mother Nature favors leanness. In fact, recent research has shown that breastfed babies, after the first four to six months, are leaner than their formula-fed peers, as they gain proportionally more height than weight. Formula-fed babies tend to get solid foods earlier and gain proportionally more weight than height, suggesting an early tendency away from leanness.
- Delay solids. The longer you wait to start your baby on solid foods, the lower the risk of your baby getting over-fat, especially a baby who neither looks lean nor has lean parents. When you do begin solids, begin with the most nutrient-dense foods, those which pack the most nutrition in the fewest calories, such as vegetables rather than fruit and whole grains over sweets.
- Watch for low-cal cues. It’s easy to interpret every cry as baby needing food, but maybe baby is thirsty, physically uncomfortable, lonesome, or just wants to be held. Especially if you are formula-feeding, sometimes try to pacify your baby by holding or playing with him rather than simply plugging a bottle into the bored baby. If you are still unable to calm baby, try a bit of water or a pacifier, since baby may just be thirsty or in need of sucking.
- Don’t fill your baby with juice. Juices are not nutrient-dense foods. Fruit juices straight out of the carton contain nearly as many calories as the same volume of milk or formula, but are much less nutritious and filling. Babies can consume a much larger quantity of juice than of breastmilk or formula without feeling full. Excess juice can be a subtle cause of infant obesity. Instead of full-strength juice, dilute the juice by at least half with water or if you feel baby is simply thirsty, use juice simply to flavor the water.
- Get baby moving. Most babies when awake are in constant motion anyway, so you don’t have to put your baby on an exercise program. Yet, some mellow babies are content with visual stimulation. They like to lie and look rather than wiggle and crawl. The plumper the baby, the less baby likes to budge, leading to the cycle of inactivity and fatness. Get down on the floor and play with your baby, or put some music on and dance around with your toddler.
- Respect tiny tummies. Babies’ tummies are about the size of their fists, so that small, frequent feedings (the breastfeeding pattern) are more physiologically correct than larger, less frequent feedings (the bottle-feeding pattern). To appreciate this bottle-tummy-size mismatch, compare a full bottle to baby’s fist. You will be less likely to force baby to “finish the bottle.”
- Respect toddler tummies. Just about every day in my pediatric practice, some parent complains, “My toddler is such a picky eater.” Over the years I’ve come to realize that toddlers pick and peck at food because toddlers are made that way. During the first year, babies eat a lot because they grow a lot, tripling their birthweight by one year of age. Yet, the normal toddler may get only one-third heavier between the first and second birthdays. Many toddlers grow proportionally more in height than in weight in the second year, burning off excess baby fat and gradually becoming more lean. If you understand this as a normal stage that most toddlers go through, you will be less obsessed about your toddler’s eating patterns.