Moms fail to recognize obesity in their preschoolers

December 03, 2000

Most efforts to prevent obesity in childhood aren't likely to be successful, if results of a survey of mothers of overweight preschool children are any indication.

The Children's Hospital Medical Center of Cincinnati study, published in the December edition of Pediatrics, shows that only 21 percent of mothers of overweight preschoolers feel their children are overweight - a misperception that is even more common in mothers with less education.

"In this study, obesity was not only more common in mothers with low education, but their preschool children were also heavier," says Robert C. Whitaker, M.D., M.P.H., division of general and community pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's and the study's senior author.

"Children of mothers with low education may be at even greater risk of later obesity because the children are more likely to be overweight and their mothers are less likely to recognize it," says Dr. Whitaker. "For parents to involve themselves in childhood obesity prevention, they must first recognize when their children are becoming overweight and be concerned about the consequences."

The researchers surveyed 622 mothers of preschool children between the ages of 2 and 5. The surveys took place either in offices of private pediatricians that serve predominately white, middle- or upper-middle income families, or at one of nine Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) clinics in Kentucky that provide supplemental food and nutrition counseling to low-income women and their children.

Mothers ranged from 18 to 53 years old. About one of every five children was non-white. Obesity was more prevalent in mothers of non-white children, but there was no significant difference in the prevalence of overweight between white and non-white children.

"Many parents, especially those with less education, may not even perceive that their overweight children are overweight," says Dr. Whitaker. "As healthcare professionals try to increase parental awareness about preventing obesity, they must also help parents meet an additional challenge: to encourage healthy, lifelong diet and exercise habits in children without producing a preoccupation with thinness or a poor self-concept related to body weight."
The study was supported by a Generalist Physician Faculty Scholars Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a grant from the International Life Sciences Institute for Health.

The study's lead author was Amy E. Baughcum, who is now a doctoral candidate in the department of Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Florida.

Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

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