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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Infants’ television exposure can be linked to childhood obesity

It’s no secret why the United States is facing an obesity epidemic – poor diet and exercise habits. But UNC researcher Peggy Bentley said childhood obesity can sometimes take root in infancy, long before kids eat junk food or play their first video game.

Bentley is the Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor of Global Nutrition in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, where she also serves as associate dean. In 2003, her research team began studying what happens in the lives of children before they become overweight. They recruited 217 low-income mothers between 18 and 35 to study how they fed and cared for their babies through the first 18 months of life.

Turns out, about half of the mothers fed their babies in front of the television, something pediatricians caution against.

“It’s easier to miss an infant’s cues when a baby or mother is watching television,” said Amanda Thompson, assistant professor of anthropology and a member of Bentley’s team. Both are faculty fellows at the Carolina Population Center.

When babies are distracted by TV, they sometimes push away food, clamp down their mouths, or squirm to get away from the food – typical things babies do to tell parents they aren’t hungry, Thompson said.

And television isn’t limited to mealtime. Thompson also found that:

The upshot, Thompson said, is that many parents are using television to distract or calm their babies. But the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for kids under 2 years old. Pediatricians and researchers suggest that parents allow babies and toddlers to explore their environment, play with age-appropriate toys and read books with caregivers.

Early exposure to television might set kids up for a more sedentary life or delay motor skill development, but it’s just one precursor to childhood obesity that Bentley’s team has studied. Diet is another; its effect on weight is likely much more direct than television’s.

Maternal health experts recommend that babies stick solely with breast milk for at least their first six months of life. But that’s no longer a common practice in the United States.

Using the same data from surveys and observations of 217 mothers, Bentley’s team found that 75 percent of 3-month-olds were fed complementary foods along with breast milk or formula. Twenty-five percent were fed juice, which is full of empty calories. Just 6 percent were fed breast milk exclusively.

Also, the researchers found that mothers who thought their infants were fussy or agitated were much more likely to feed their babies food and juice at 3 months old.

The findings suggest that babies are getting too many calories at a young age, a likely factor in childhood obesity.

With funding from the National Institutes of Health, Bentley’s team is now studying how to reverse these trends.

Team members are recruiting hundreds of expectant mothers, caregivers and family members to provide guidance on the benefits of breastfeeding, proper diet and engaged play with babies and toddlers, as well as on the potential detriment of watching too much television. Mothers in the control group, meanwhile, will receive interventions about child safety.

“We think these are important teachable moments,” Bentley said. “Moms want their babies to be healthy and on track to reach developmental milestones.”

And they want to soothe their babies. But some mothers don’t know the best strategies to calm an infant, so during the study, Bentley’s team will help mothers develop more parenting skills.

Although it’s easy to distract a baby with a bottle or television, there are other, more beneficial ways to soothe a baby, Bentley said. (The researchers’ most recent paper on television exposure was published in the journal Pediatrics.)

Bentley’s team has shown that the easier parenting methods can lead to some tough consequences. They found one more thing: Overweight infants face a higher risk of delayed motor skill development, which can lead to reduced physical activity.

Childhood obesity, it turns out, can be a vicious cycle that begins shortly after baby’s first breath.