Dr. Shakira Suglia
Interestingly, the study did not find a similar association for boys.
The researchers looked at 1,605 pre-school aged U.S. children, obtaining reports from their mothers’ on various stressors the children may have been subjected to between one to three years of age, such as intimate partner violence, maternal depressive symptoms, substance use, or a father’s incarceration. This is one of the first studies to examine obesity risk factors in young children. Up until now, most studies examining social stressors have focused on school-aged children or adolescence.
The study results were published in the May issue of Pediatrics.
When children’s height and weight were measured at age five, 17 percent were obese. Girls were twice as likely to be obese if their mothers had reported experiencing two or more stressors at age three. This is similar to two earlier studies which found association between depression and obesity in adolescent girls but not boys. “It’s possible that girls internalize things differently. Other studies have shown they do act differently in being exposed to stress. Girls tend to internalize more, and to have more depressive behaviors,” says Dr. Shakira Suglia, author of the study and assistant professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School.
The association between early childhood stressors and obesity are a reflection of parenting behaviors such as providing the child with a poor diet and not encouraging physical activity. In a stressful home environment, food may also be used as a tool for rewarding or calming children, the researchers suggest. “For families who are experiencing all these stresses, obesity is one more thing and may not be as high a priority as other things,” says Dr. Suglia. “Particularly for girls, when you’re seeing these patients coming in as obese children at age five, there is probably more going on than what they’re eating and what their physical activity is. There are other things going on in the family environment that need to be addressed to improve the health of the child.”