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Does Baby Sucking Ability Lead To Obesity?

June 24, 2016

June 24, 2016

by Janice Celeste

PacifierEditor-in-Chief, Janice Celeste interviewed Dr. Babbett S. Zemel, of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia about her recent research that shows an initial correlation between strong infant sucking skills and childhood obesity. According to a report by the National Obesity Rates & Trends, “African American adults are nearly 1.5 times as likely to be obese compared with White adults.” Dr. Zemel is studying 53 healthy African-American babies during their first two years of life to determine if the correlation can be used as a marker to possibly identify children that are at risk of becoming overweight.

Baby purple

Q. Your initial findings show that infants with strong sucking skills gain weight more rapidly than others at four months and this could lead to obesity later in life. Most parents feel that a little weight on an infant will “come off” once they become mobile as toddlers and beyond. Is this something that parents should be concerned about when it comes to a newborn? 

A. Our report is from a preliminary analysis of an ongoing study of infant weight gain in the first two years of life. The reason we are doing the study is to learn more about the patterns of weight gain and whether they lead to subsequent obesity. Prior epidemiological research has shown that rapid weight gain in the first few months of life is associated with obesity. We are trying to identify factors associated with rapid weight gain. Infant sucking behavior is one of many factors we are examining. Not all infants who gain weight rapidly will become obese later on, and we are also going to investigate why some do and others do not become obese later on. So, in essence, it is too early to have answers to your important questions; they are at the heart of what we are trying to find out. It is best to follow the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics because that is the best guidance parents and health care providers have at this time.

…teaching parents how to tell the difference between hunger versus the desire for comfort, or encouraging the infant to take little “breaks” while drinking a bottle [can help].” – Dr. Babbett S. Zemel, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Baby sucking skills and obesityQ. African-American mothers have traditionally been known to add powdered cereal to baby bottles to help infants feel full and sleep through the night. How much do infant feeding habits by the parents contribute to infant weight gain? 

A. This is an excellent question. We are investigating this dietary pattern, as well as sucking behavior, but do not have an answer to this question yet since the study is in progress.

Q. Also how much does heredity contribute to weight gain, as well as the eating habits of the parents?

A. This is also an excellent question that we are investigating, but do not have an answer to this question yet since the study is in progress. We are collecting information about the mother’s diet during pregnancy, and her weight gain during and after pregnancy. Hopefully, we will be able to answer this in the future.

Q. Is there a way for parents to determine if their child has a stronger suckingBottle instinct than other infants and what if anything can they do about it?

A. Presently, there is no way for parents to measure their child’s sucking instinct. We used a device called a Neonur, which is not commercially available at this time. However, parents who give their baby milk from a bottle (either human milk or formula) have a good sense of whether their baby drinks slowly or quickly. For breastfed babies, this is more difficult to know. Parents should follow their pediatrician’s guidance on how much to feed their baby and when to start introducing complementary foods to support healthy weight gain.

Q. What are the future implications for this study?

A. The study suggests that sucking behavior in early infancy may be an indicator of rapid weight gain. If this turns out to be true, new strategies can be developed to promote a healthy pattern of weight gain in infancy and childhood. Examples of strategies that should be tested for efficacy might include teaching parents how to tell the difference between hunger versus the desire for comfort, or encouraging the infant to take little “breaks” while drinking a bottle.

Babette S. Zemel, Ph.D., is the associate program director of the Clinical and Translational Research Center, the director of the Bionutrition Core Laboratory, and an academic investigator with the Healthy Weight Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.





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