Can Moms Help Prevent Teen Obesity?
The quality of the emotional relationship between a mother and her young child could affect the potential for that child to be obese during adolescence, a new study suggests. The study is published in the January 2012 issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Rather than blaming parents for childhood obesity, the researchers say these findings suggest that obesity prevention efforts should consider strategies to improve the mother-child bond and not focus exclusively on eating and exercise.
"It is possible that childhood obesity could be influenced by interventions that try to improve the emotional bonds between mothers and children rather than focusing only on children's food intake and activity," said lead study author Sarah Anderson, assistant professor of epidemiology at Ohio State University.
The researchers analyzed data from 977 participants. Trained observers assessed child attachment security and maternal sensitivity by documenting interactions between mothers and their children at 3 time points: when the children were 15, 24 and 36 months old.
In the maternal sensitivity assessment, mothers were instructed to play with their child while investigators rated several aspects of each mother's behavior, including supportiveness and respect for autonomy as well as signs of intrusiveness or hostility. Investigators rated attachment security of the children at age 15 and 36 months by monitoring a child's separation from and reunion with the mother. At 24 months, researchers assessed children's attachment security by observing mothers and children in their home.
Using these assessments, Anderson and colleagues developed a maternal-child relationship quality score for their own statistical analysis. With a range of 0 to 6, the score measured a child's early relationship experience: Each point reflected a child's display of insecure attachment or a mother's low sensitivity at one of the 3 assessment times. A score of 3 or more indicated a poor-quality emotional relationship.
A total of 241 children, or 24.7 percent, had a poor quality maternal-child relationship during early childhood based on a score of 3 or higher. The rate of obesity at age 15 was 26.1 percent among these children with the poorest early maternal-child relationships. The teen obesity prevalence was lower for children with better maternal relationships: 15.5 percent, 12.1 percent and 13 percent among those who had scores of 2, 1 and 0, respectively.
Accounting for children's gender and birth weight—two of several factors that also can influence the quality of the maternal-child relationship and risk for obesity—children with the poorest quality early maternal-child relationship were almost 2 ½ times as likely to be obese as adolescents than were children who had the best relationships with their mothers.
Anderson and colleagues suggest that this association between early childhood experiences and teen obesity has origins in the brain. The limbic system in the brain controls responses to stress as well as the sleep/wake cycle, hunger and thirst, and a variety of metabolic processes, mostly through the regulation of hormones.
"Sensitive parenting increases the likelihood that a child will have a secure pattern of attachment and develop a healthy response to stress," Anderson said. "A well-regulated stress response could in turn influence how well children sleep and whether they eat in response to emotional distress—just two factors that affect the likelihood for obesity."
Obesity may be one manifestation of dysregulation in the functioning of the stress response system. Parents help children develop a healthy response to stress by protecting children from extreme levels of stress, responding supportively and consistently to normal levels of stress, and modeling behavioral responses to stress.