How Mom's State of Mind Affects Obesity

Depression in mothers and feeding practices intersect to increase overweight risk in children

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) It can be challenging to raise children to be healthy, nutritious eaters. It may be tougher when mom has her own challenges to face. But options are available to help with both.

A recent study found that children were more likely to be overweight if their mothers had symptoms of depression.

The reason for this link appears to be related to the feeding behaviors and mealtime practices in the homes of mothers with depression.

Mothers therefore may want to seek help for their own depression symptoms and to learn how to promote healthy eating in their families.

Community resources offer multiple options for these mothers, according to a dailyRx expert.

"Use community resources for mental health and nutrition services."

This study, led by Rachel S. Gross, MD, of the Department of Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, looked at the relationship between a mother's mental health and the factors that may affect her child's risk of being overweight.

The researchers surveyed 401 mothers and their 5-year-old children to learn about the mother's mental heath and various practices in the home.

The children all received health care at a community health center in the Bronx in New York City.

The questions asked about how mealtimes went in the families, about the mothers' feeding styles with their children and about the children's activities in terms of sleep time, screen time and outdoor playtime.

The surveys also assessed the women's depression symptoms and categorized them as having no symptoms of depression, mild depression or moderate to severe depression.

Overall, 23.4 percent of the women had some depression symptoms. This group included 15.7 percent with mild depression and 7.7 percent with moderate to severe depression.

The researchers calculated the children's weight based on body mass index (BMI). BMI is a ratio of a person's height to weight and is used to determine whether someone has healthy weight or is underweight, overweight or obese.

The researchers found that the children of mothers with moderate to severe symptoms of depression were about 2.6 times more likely to be overweight or obese.

This increased risk and other associations in the study were calculated after taking into account a number of factors that could influence weight or feeding practices.

These factors included the child's sex, birth weight and number of siblings, as well as whether the child had health insurance and whether the baby was born on time or early.

Additional factors included the mother's age, race/ethnicity, BMI, educational level, marital status and employment status.

The findings also revealed that, overall, having more symptoms of depression in mothers was linked to behaviors that could increase children's risk of becoming overweight.

Children of mothers with mild depression were about three times more likely to drink sweetened drinks and were almost 2.5 times more likely to eat out at restaurants three or more times a week, compared to children of non-depressed mothers.

Children of mildly depressed mothers were also slightly more likely to skip breakfast than children of non-depressed mothers.

Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, eating out frequently and skipping breakfast are all behaviors that research has shown are linked to a higher risk for being overweight or obese.

Mothers with symptoms of depression were also less likely to set limits with their children, such as with unhealthy snacks or with screen time, and were less likely to model healthy eating for their kids.

In addition, "Mothers with moderate to severe depressive symptoms were less likely to restrict their child’s intake than mothers without depressive symptoms," the researchers wrote.

The results also showed that children of mothers with depression symptoms played outside for less time per day and got a little less sleep each day than children of non-depressed mothers.

The researchers concluded that depression symptoms in mothers are linked to behaviors and practices that can increase a child's risk of becoming overweight or obese.

However, mothers who have these depression symptoms or who want to learn more about healthy eating and mealtime behaviors have resources they can turn to.

"Parents who seek help for themselves and their children are often filled with shame and despair. However, reaching out for guidance and support is an incredible act of strength," said Seanna Crosbie, LCSW, director of program services at Austin Child Guidance Center.

"Parents who are interested in accessing health care referrals and nutrition resources, can locate information through [the website of the] Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program," Crosbie said.

"This website includes information on breastfeeding, local contacts to nutrition experts, and articles on healthy eating for both parents and kids," she said. "In terms of mental health information, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) website...provides helpful information on depression and other topics."

Crosbie also mentioned that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers immediate assistance and can connect callers to local crisis centers.

This study was published in the July-August issue of the journal Academic Pediatrics. No disclosures were noted.

The research was funded by the Academic Pediatric Association Young Investigator Award sponsored by Bright Futures and the Maternal and Child Health Bureau.

Additional funding came from the Bronx CREED (funded by the National Institutes of Health), the Altman Foundation, the New York City Council Children's Mental Health Under 5 Initiative and the Price Foundation.

Review Date: 
August 1, 2013
Last Updated:
August 2, 2013