Everyone loves a chubby baby — there’s something about a roly-poly belly and thighs that is completely adorable. “Baby fat” is something people don’t worry about. Not only do we think of it as cute, we think of it as healthy — and temporary.
Unfortunately, it’s not healthy or temporary. Which is why parents need to be mindful of their baby’s weight.
It used to be that baby fat was indeed healthy and temporary. In days when infant mortality was high, a little heft meant some extra reserves for the baby. And until recently, most children lost their baby fat once they got old enough to be active outside. But modern medicine has made babies far more likely to survive — and modern technology and other societal factors have made children far more likely to be sedentary. The reality is that baby fat turns into child fat, which turns into adult fat.
Luckily, there are some simple things that parents can do to keep their baby at a healthy weight and set them on the best path to stay that way.
1. Breastfeed. Some mothers cannot do this at all, and many cannot do it for very long. But if it’s possible, breastfeeding is a great way to get your baby started. Not only is the food perfectly designed for the baby’s nutritional needs, it’s almost impossible to overfeed while breastfeeding. Even if the baby stays there for a long time, after 10 to 15 minutes they are mostly just sucking for comfort and not getting milk.
2. Don’t respond to every cry with a feed. Babies cry for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s hunger, but sometimes they cry when they are tired, scared, overwhelmed, bored, uncomfortable, or just want to be held. If it’s been only a short time since a feed, parents should try a few other things before they feed the baby. Try changing the diaper, holding and soothing — or talking and playing. This is particularly important to start early; if every time a baby fusses they are fed, after a while they may start to think of feeding as what they need when they are bored, tired, or upset, making other tactics less successful and creating unhealthy associations with eating that are hard to undo.
3. Don’t overfeed. It’s natural to want a baby to finish a bottle or a bowl of food. But if a baby stops eating and signals that he doesn’t want any more, it’s important to respect that. If your doctor has said that your baby is underweight and needs to eat more, that’s a different story and you should talk to your doctor about what to do. But if your baby is healthy, when he says he’s done, he’s done. Let him listen to his hunger cues; it will be important for the rest of his life.
4. Give healthy solid food. Once your baby is ready, give fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, and lean meats. Babies will try anything. Use this time before they become picky to build their tastes for foods you want them to eat forever. While iron-fortified baby cereals can be healthy, don’t overdo them.
5. Start family meals early. As soon as your baby can sit in a highchair, bring her to the table to eat with you. Children who eat meals with their parents are less likely to be overweight — and family dinners help build strong relationships and help children succeed in school (and help keep teens out of trouble). Make it a habit early. Not only is it good for babies, but establishing the family meal habit helps everyone in the family — especially if it spurs families to cook healthy meals.
6. Get your baby moving. Exercise can and should start early. Get your baby on the floor; do “tummy time,” encourage movement. Get down on the floor with them. Make safe places for them to crawl and learn to walk and run. Take them out for walks — and once they can walk, make sure they walk too. If you make active play and family exercise a normal part of every day, it not only helps babies get to and stay at a healthy weight, it makes it more likely that they will be active as children, teens, and adults.
That’s really the point: good health habits not only help your children now, but for the rest of their life.