Study: Bottle-Feeding Babies More Than Doubles Obesity Risk

The feeding methods parents use can greatly inflate—or shrink—their baby’s risk of becoming obese by age 2, according to a new study published in Pediatric Obesity involving more than 8,000 children.  

The researchers reported that formula-fed babies have a 2.5 times higher risk for obesity by 24 months, compared to those who are breast fed during the first six months of life. Babies fed both formula and breast milk were nearly twice as likely to become obese as breast-fed babies.

The study also found that two other feeding patterns boosted the threat of early childhood obesity. Starting solid foods early (before 4 months) lifted risk by 40 percent, and putting babies to bed with a bottle magnified it by 30 percent.

According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children who are obese are likely to be obese as adults—and have a high risk for health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Here’s a closer look at the research and what parents can do to reduce their child’s risk for childhood obesity.

Does formula make babies fat?

Although many studies show that breastfed babies are less likely to become chubby toddlers, researchers don’t yet know all the reasons for this link, says lead study author Ben Gibbs, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at Brigham Young University.

“While there are nutritional differences between formula and breast milk, there is also a cluster of unhealthy feeding behaviors that can go along with using formula, such as the expectation that the child should finish the bottle,” says Professor Gibbs. “It’s like insisting that kids clean their plate at mealtime, which teaches them to ignore their natural hunger signals.”

In addition, “there are some substances in breast milk that help infants tell when they’re full, so they get a better satiety response to their meals” adds Sara Lappe, MD, director of the b. Well Kids’ Clinic, a weight management program at Cleveland Clinic’s Children’s Hospital.  “Also, breastfeeding is more of a supply and demand situation—when babies are full, they stop nursing.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, if possible.

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Are you overfeeding your infant?

With formula feeding, adds Dr. Lappe, "parents often make the mistake of constantly popping the bottle in the baby’s mouth at the first sign of fussing, instead of trying to figure out if the baby is actually hungry." She advises feeding babies up to two months of age every two to three hours.

During feedings, be guided by your baby’s appetite, emphasizes Dr. Lappe. "When babies are full, they will turn their head away from the bottle, start chewing on the nipple instead of sucking, or feed more and more slowly." These are all signs that your baby has had enough to eat.

One sign that you’re not overfeeding your baby is having lots of half-empty bottles in the fridge, adds Prof. Gibbs, the dad of a 7-week-old baby. He strongly recommends against putting babies to bed with a bottle, which contributes to both childhood obesity and tooth decay.

During each visit to the pediatrician, ask about your baby’s growth. If he or she is gaining weight too rapidly, discuss how to modify feedings.

How to Protect Your Baby from Obesity

Avoid feeding babies solid foods before six months, advises Goutham Rao, MD, vice chair of the department of family medicine at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Illinois. “There is no question that early introduction of solid foods is a major risk factor for early childhood obesity.”

During meals of solid foods, stop feeding once the baby starts pushing the spoon away, advises Dr. Lappe.

When you introduce solids, adds Dr. Rao, “begin with vegetables or cereal—foods that aren’t sweet. Another good rule to follow is ‘no juice ever’ because sugary drinks—including fruit juice—are the number one cause of childhood obesity.”

Instead, babies should drink formula, breast milk, and water as their sole beverages, adds Dr. Rao.

Finally, make sure your baby gets lots of opportunities to be active. Too much time sitting in an infant seat, stroller, or baby swing can contribute to packing on too many pounds.

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Five Ways to Sooth Babies Without a Bottle

If your baby becomes fussy within an hour of eating, hunger is rarely the reason. Instead of offering a bottle, try these “five S’s,” says Dr. Lappe:

  • Swaddling. Being wrapped up in a blanket helps calm a fretful baby. 
  • Shushing. Soothing sounds will help your child relax and settle. 
  • Swinging. Gently rocking your baby in your arms is another proven strategy. 
  • Sucking. Offer a pacifier instead of a bottle. 
  • Side/stomach position. This should only be used when your baby is awake, since sleeping on the belly raises risk for sudden infant death syndrome. When a baby is fussing, however, this position helps turn off crying.

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