Feeding babies solid food earlier than six months have a higher risk in becoming obese before they reach the age of three, researchers say.
The findings are the latest in a series of studies undertaken in Project Viva—a groundbreaking long-term research study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) geared look into the different factors that result to the development of childhood obesity, asthma among children and many others.
Dr. Susanna Y. Huh and her colleagues from the Children's Hospital Boston on more than 840 infants with two-thirds of the infants having been partly breast-fed and 33 percent solely fed with milk formula. Based on the data gathered by Dr. Huh and her colleagues, they discovered that 13 percent infants who were fed with milk formula for four months before being introduced with solid foods were six times more likely to develop childhood obesity by the age of three.
"The first few months after birth may be a critical window for the development of obesity," Dr. Huh explained. "Parental feeding practices during early infancy, such as the timing of solid food introduction, may be one key determinant of childhood obesity."
Her statement was supported by the findings of another research study conducted by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC) on babies from African-American families belonging to the low-income socio-economic bracket who were considered to be one of the primary groups of families that start their infants on solid foods as early as three months old. According to Heather Wasser—head of the research study conducted and a nutrition doctoral student at UNC—babies and infants who were given solid foods earlier than six months were digesting as much as 100 calories more per day than those that were still being fed with breast milk or milk formulas.
"[This is] very significant because the typical infant takes in 500 to 700 calories [per day]," she said.
In addition to this, researchers have also shown the relationship between the length of time a baby is breastfed and the development of childhood obesity.
The data gathered by Dr. Huh and her team have shown that babies who were breastfed longer by their mothers have a lower risk of developing obesity in childhood and even in adulthood. This was evident to previous national data showing that African-American babies have the greatest risk of becoming overweight. Studies have shown than only 19% of African-American mothers were still breastfeeding their babies at three months compared to 35% of Caucasian mothers and 37% Hispanic mothers.
"Breastfeeding may promote self-regulation of an infant's energy intake, and the mother may learn to recognize her infant's hunger and satiety cues," Dr. Huh pointed out. "[This is] one possible reason why we saw an association among formula-fed but not breastfed infants."
"[The studies confirm] the tremendous long-term nutritional value of breastfeeding during the first six months of life," adds Dr. Cliff Nerwen, Medical Director of the General Pediatrics Division at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New York. "It has always been a common [advice given by pediatricians] to avoid starting [infants on] solid foods earlier than four months of age, and preferably actually waiting until six months of age before doing so."
Childhood obesity is a serious health problem in the United States. According to Taryn Morrissey, who did a study on how the amount of time mothers spend at work contributes to the development of childhood obesity among their children, nearly one-fifth of American children are considered to be obese.
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In the state of New Hampshire alone, one in every three children is considered to be overweight. The problem has become extremely serious that a pediatric weight clinic was opened at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center where doctors treat children with medical conditions that were previously only seen among adults. Among these include insulin resistance, liver disease, and sleep apnea.
The same situation is faced in Canada. About 30% of children—or one-third of the children population—in Canada are considered to be obese with many of them posing a higher risk for the development of many complications such as diabetes and high blood pressure, according to Dr. Catherine Berken, a pediatrician who works with obese children and adolescents at SickKids Hospital in Toronto.