Hugs, kisses and communication can go a long way toward beating the obesity epidemic plaguing the youth of America.
While Michelle Obama pushes be more exercise and a balanced diet — and rightly so — she probably should also mention that the quality of the emotional relationship between a mother and her child could affect that child’s likelihood of being obese during adolescence.
In a study supported by the National Institutes of Health and published last month in the journal Pediatrics, researchers analyzed national data detailing relationship characteristics between mothers and their children during their toddler years. The results? The lower the quality of the relationship in terms of the child’s emotional security and the mother’s sensitivity, the higher the risk that a child would be obese at age 15.
Toddlers who had the lowest-quality emotional relationships with their mothers almost 2½ times as likely to be obese as adolescents than children who had the best relationships with their mothers. More than a 26 percent of them became obese, compared to 13 percent of adolescents who had close bonds with their moms.
Researchers believe the findings may have a basis in the dramatic brain development that takes place by age 5. There may be a link between the areas of the brain that control emotions and stress responses and the areas that control appetite and energy, increasing the likelihood that a child who is not nurtured warmly will be obese.
The researchers say these findings suggest a need for enhanced efforts to stop the obesity epidemic.
“It is possible that childhood obesity could be influenced by interventions that try to improve the emotional bonds between mothers and children rather than focusing only on children’s food intake and activity,” says Sarah Anderson, assistant professor of epidemiology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study.
The researchers, however, don’t put the blame on parents. “The sensitivity a mother displays in interacting with her child may be influenced by factors she can’t necessarily control. Societally, we need to think about how we can support better-quality maternal-child relationships because that could have an impact on child health.”
In clinical terms, maternal sensitivity refers to a mother’s ability to recognize her child’s emotional state and respond with comfort, consistency and warmth. Psychologists describe securely attached children as those who rely on their parents as a “safe haven,” which allows them to explore their environments freely, adapt easily to new people and be comforted in stressful situations.
In other words, positive parenting, loving hugs, kisses and consistency can go a long way.