Is there a link between infant feeding patterns and obesity?

Researchers see link between infant feeding patterns and later obesity in children.

a newborn baby sucking a nursing bottle

Image source: Thinkstock

It’s kind of shocking to think about.

Could we be setting our children up for obesity by the way that we feed them when they’re only a couple of months old? Does making sure your baby finishes every bottle set him up to be an overweight teenager? If every time she cries, you offer her breastmilk or a bottle, will she turn to food to comfort her when she leaves for college?

Certainly, it isn’t that cut and dry and we don’t have proof of cause and effect here. But what we do have is research and emerging evidence that even the earliest feeding habits may translate to weight issues down the road.

A research article was e-published this month in Pediatrics (the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) that looks at infant feeding and activity patterns. The study looked at pairs of 2-month-old infants with their mothers and asked about feeding and activity behaviors thought to increase obesity risk.

What they found was that even at the young age of 2 months, 12 percent had already introduced solid foods, 23 percent propped bottles, 20 percent always fed when the infant cried, 38 percent tried to get the baby to finish the milk, 90 percent were exposed to television and 66 percent did not meet “tummy time” recommendations. These behaviors are thought to be related to later obesity and were surprisingly common in the diverse study group.

Breaking the cycle

While some may see this as alarming news, it can also be viewed as an opportunity. If we can influence feeding habits negatively from the early days, that also means we can influence them positively.

Here’s what you can do for your baby:

  • Respect hunger.
    That means if your baby is finished eating and turning away from the bottle after it’s only half empty, that’s OK. As adults we know that some meals we’re famished and some meal times we just aren’t that hungry. Trying to make baby finish a certain amount of formula or nurse for a specified amount of time is also trying to make her ignore her own hunger cues. If food is accessible and predictable, your baby will eat according to his or her needs.
  • Practice tummy time.
    Even little babies need a little exercise! Start with just a few minutes on her stomach several times a day when she is awake, calm and isn’t hungry just yet. Get down to her level with her and talk so she is encouraged to pick up her head and look at you. As she gets stronger you can spend more time on the tummy and she can begin to look around and see the interesting colorful objects you are holding a foot or two away from her face.
  • Unplug at meal time.
    It’s tough being a parent and many parents are taking care of multiple children and/or holding down jobs as well. We all want time to sit in front of the TV or computer. But let’s not do that by propping up the baby’s bottle and sitting him in front of the TV. Feeding time should be active and interactive, just like family meal time.
  • Allow your baby’s cues to guide you.
    If he’s crying but turning away when you offer the breast, perhaps hunger isn’t the issue. Is he overtired? Turn down the lights, talk softly and rock him gently. Wet diaper? That’s an easy fix! Room too warm or cold? What may be comfortable to you may be cool for her since she looses body heat more readily than an adult. Try footed PJ’s or a little knit hat. Irritated or dry skin? Try a soothing bath and unscented lotion like Aquaphor or Aveeno.
  • Breastmilk or formula only for the first 6 months.
    Your baby does not need solid foods of any kind before 4 months. Resist the temptation to add cereal to the bottle. By adding calories to your baby’s milk, you are possibly circumventing the hunger signals again. There are times and places where your pediatrician may recommend adding a thickener to your baby’s bottle, but that should only be done on your doctor’s advice.

Stay well!



  1. Avatar Dr. Parker says

    As a psychologist I really appreciated this article. Dr. Willis makes it clear that meeting the baby’s needs are paramount, though sometimes overshadowed by the less experienced mother’s.

  2. Avatar Christopher Castoro says

    Dr. Willis is, as usual, right on the money! Good advice for new and/or expecting parents