Children who are overweight or obese during early childhood are at an increased risk for maintaining an unhealthy weight as they age. Today, more than 10 percent of American infants and toddlers are obese. Yet, little is known about what contributes to obesity risk during the first two years of life.
Assistant Professor Eric Hodges is conducting a longitudinal study of
45 African-American children and their mothers to determine if a mother’s response to her child’s hunger or fullness cues directly impacts the child’s ability to self-regulate food intake. He has funding from the University of North Carolina’s Clinical Nutrition Research Center and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Hodges is conducting a secondary analysis of videotapes from a recent study that followed African-American mothers and their infants from ages three months to 18 months, analyzing their feeding relationships. This previous study’s principal investigator, Margaret Bentley, a nutritionist from the School of Public Health, is collaborating with Hodges on his research. Hodges is analyzing data on feeding interactions at infant ages three months, six months, nine months, 12 months and 18 months.
Data collection will reveal how a mother reacts to signs that her child is hungry, such as increased sucking or mouthing, reaching for food or crying due to hunger. In addition, Hodges is observing how mothers respond to fullness signals, such as a slower eating pace, opening the mouth only when the spoon reaches the lips or turning away from food.
“We’re looking at the mother’s response to the signs that the child is either receptive to or disinterested in food,” Hodges said. “Ultimately, we want to begin to establish whether these feeding interactions have a direct impact on children’s ability to control how much food they eat and whether this sets children up for a risk of obesity.”
Hodges intends to target unproductive feeding patterns for prevention and early intervention to reduce the occurrence of childhood obesity. Data gathered could also identify characteristics of an infant-mother pair that may put infants at risk for obesity, such as a pairing of an infant with a difficult temperament and a depressed mother who struggles to respond appropriately to her child’s feeding cues.