Is Your Toddler Overweight?

Toddlers body sizes and weight inaccurately perceived by moms

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Of course you adore your adorably chubby little toddler, but you do know how much of that chubbiness is normal or whether your child might actually be overweight? Many moms don't.

A recent study found that the vast majority of mothers whose toddlers were overweight had a different perception of their little ones and could not correctly identify an image representing their baby's body size.

"Ask your doctor if your toddler is a healthy weight."

Erin Hager, PhD, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, led the study of 281 pairs of moms and their toddlers, with an average age of 20 months. The mothers ranged in age from 18 to 46, and 72 percent of them were overweight or obese.

The women were enrolled in a suburban Special Supplemental Nutrition Program at a Women, Infants and Children (WIC) clinic or took their children to an urban pediatric clinic whose patients are primarily from low-income families.

Approximately 71 percent of the toddlers were African-American, and 29 percent were overweight, defined as being above the 85th percentile for weight given their height.

The researchers used seven silhouettes that represented toddlers at different points on the weight percentile scale. They then asked the mothers whether they were satisfied with their toddler's weight and whether they could pick out their toddler's silhouette from the group of seven.

When the mothers were asked, "Which picture looks most like your child?", only 30 percent correctly identified the silhouette that represented their child or else a silhouette on either side of their child. The other 70 percent selected a silhouette either two sizes or more too big or too small.

Mothers whose toddlers were underweight were 9 times more likely to select an accurate silhouette as the one that represented their child, but mothers of overweight toddlers were 87 percent less likely to choose the correct one (or one on either side of it).

Mothers were then asked, "Which picture do you want your child to look like?" If they selected the same silhouette they believed their child to be, that was scored as the mother being satisfied with her toddler's weight.

Over 70 percent of all mothers, including 82 percent of mothers with overweight toddlers, were satisfied with their child's body size.

These results did not differ across the toddler's ages, gender, race or the mother's education or weight.

The fact that mothers with overweight toddlers had an inaccurate sense of their child's body size and were satisfied with their child's size implies that mothers think of heavier toddlers as being normal and acceptable, the authors wrote in their conclusion.

"Future studies should examine how parental satisfaction and/or accuracy are related to parenting behaviors including feeding behaviors and encouragement of physical activity," the authors wrote.

Eliana Perrin, MD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote an accompanying commentary about the study and noted that current research is revealing that parents are more willing and more effective in making behavioral changes related to weight if they have an accurate perception of weight.

"We likely need a public health campaign that allows us to visualize the range of healthy toddlers' and older children's weight," Perrin wrote. "This type of campaign may help reset our nationally normed pictures of health, helping parents appreciate healthy undulations of weight."

The study appeared in the May issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Funding for the research came from the grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture Human Nutrition and Obesity Program and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 7, 2012
Last Updated:
May 7, 2012