Fourteen percent of 2- to 5-year-olds are overweight, but researchers at the University Of Maryland School Of Medicine have identified strategies they believe work to help prevent childhood obesity.
“Young children learn by watching their families,” said study leader Maureen Black, a professor of pediatrics at the medical school.
Black, who has a doctorate in developmental psychology, led the study that found toddlers learn what they live: that mothers can help them by leading by example.
“The message to parents of young children is … take care of yourself, eat healthy foods and be physically active, and your child will do what you’re doing. Your child wants to follow you,” she said.
The yearlong study followed mothers and children beginning when the kids were 12 to 32 months old.
“It is such a unique time to help children build healthy habits. It’s so much easier when they’re young than when they’re 15,” Black said.
Parents who want kids to snack on carrots shouldn’t be observed sitting in front of the TV munching on potato chips. Parents who want children to be more active, to play ball, run and play should play with them.
“It also extends to sleep,” Black said. “If we don’t get enough sleep, we’re crabby; and if toddlers don’t get enough sleep, they’re also crabby.”
Children at that age should be sleeping about 12 hours a day, so Black said, “Help your child get enough sleep, and you also have enough sleep. Then you’re in a better mood to be able to face the day.”
Back to the study, Black said weight gained by toddlers sometimes stays with them throughout life.
To help prevent toddlers from developing an eating disorder and to help prevent obesity, Black said not to pressure them to clean their plates. Instead, offer children healthy choices and allow them to determine how much they want to eat.
The study, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, was published this month in the journal Maternal & Child Nutrition.