Is there a relationship between a mother prompting her child to eat and obesity?

The prevalence of childhood obesity has increased significantly since the 1980s. Many factors contribute to childhood obesity; however, parents are in a key position to help shape children's eating behaviors and eating environments. A study in the September issue of The Journal of Pediatrics evaluates the role of mothers prompting their child to eat, the child's compliance with those prompts, and the potential contribution of each to the risk of obesity.

Dr. Julie Lumeng and Ms. Lori Burke from the University of Michigan videotaped and evaluated the tasting of four different foods by 71 mother-child pairs. Two of the foods presented were familiar (a cream-filled sponge cake and potato chips) and two were unfamiliar (a sweet Chinese dessert cake and fried vegetable chips). The researchers recorded how many times the mother prompted her child to take a bite and whether the child obeyed these prompts. On average, children complied with their mother's prompts to take another bite approximately two-thirds of the time.

Low maternal education, the presentation of unfamiliar foods, and younger age of the child were factors that predicted more prompting from the mother. On the other hand, the mother being obese, the offering of familiar foods, and older age of the child were factors that predicted the child's compliance with the prompts. In children of obese mothers, variables that predicted a higher body mass index in the child were low maternal education, more prompts by the mother to eat unfamiliar foods, and fewer prompts to eat and bites of the familiar foods. In contrast, in children of mothers who were not obese, none of these behaviors were related to the child's weight status.

Obese mothers did not prompt their child to eat more than non-obese mothers. However, children of obese mothers complied with their mother's prompts to eat the unfamiliar foods approximately 67% of the time, whereas children of non-obese mothers complied with 52% of the prompts. This could be due either to the children of obese mothers being more sensitive to environmental cues to eat or their mothers' greater awareness of their child's weight; therefore, obese mothers should make more careful efforts towards shaping the child's eating behavior.

Dr. Lumeng states that, "A growing body of evidence suggests that maternal feeding behaviors are related to child obesity risk." Prompting may cause the child to eat more, even when full, and therefore teach to child to ignore his/her own hunger cues. However, as Dr. Lumeng points out, "Further work is needed to determine the developmental underpinnings of this phenomenon and the limits of its effect."

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The study is reported in "Maternal prompts to eat, child compliance, and mother and child weight status" by Julie C. Lumeng, MD and Lori M. Burke, BS. The article appears in The Journal of Pediatrics, Volume 149, Number 3 (September 2006) published by Elsevier.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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