Are You Hungry?: Studying How African-American Mothers Respond to Children’s Hunger Signals

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

Assistant Professor Eric Hodges is investigating whether the way a mother responds to an infant or toddler's hunger or fullness signals affects the child's risk for childhood obesity.

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.

Ready To Eat…Now, All Done

Assistant professor Eric Hodges is currently conducting research into the ways mothers respond to the hunger and fullness cues their infants and toddlers present. The goal of his study is to determine whether a mother’s response plays a role in childhood obesity as the child ages and to identify ways to change those behaviors, if needed.

Hodges conducts his research in the recently-completed behavioral observation laboratory in the School of Nursing’s Biobehavioral Laboratory. Housed inside Carrington Hall, this space gives study participants a relaxed environment in which to interact and allows Hodges to observe their behaviors in a non-invasive way.

The School of Nursing has produced a documentary, highlighting the benefits and unique nature of this lab. With Hodges’ research as a backdrop, you will be taken into this new facility to see how nurse researchers develop knowledge that translates evidence into practice.  Enjoy!

Observational Laboratory Aids Nurse Scientists in Childhood Obesity Study

Eric Hodges, PhD, RN, sits in front of two monitors  watching a mother feed her infant child, joystick in hand.  Dr. Hodges is a new breed of nurse researcher-scientist who is using high tech data collection to study the cues that mothers and children give each other during the feeding process.  As he watches the interactions — innate reflexes, facial and body responses — he moves the joystick to zoom in on his research subjects.  He watches for muscle tension and relaxation, eye contact intensity, and general engagement between the dyad.

At a computer across the room, a master’s prepared student worker is coding videotapes of mothers and their children and their responses to each other during feeding.  Is the mom watching TV?  Does the child turn his head away from the bottle perhaps signaling sufficient food intake?  Is baby fussy or content or active or passive?  What does this all mean if feeding is a central interaction in the relationship between mother and child?  How might a father who misses his child’s feeding cues contribute to food that child’s intake in later life?

These are some of the questions asked in the NIH funded longitudinal study that Dr. Hodges is conducting in the observational laboratory in the UNC Chapel Hill School of Nursing Biobehavioral Laboratory.  The laboratory, the only one of its kind at the University, is equipped with six cameras and sophisticated audio equipment to give researchers multiple views of subject interactions and to hear the verbal cues that mothers and infants give each other, too.  Cooing, crying, singing, humming, whispering and talking are all recorded and then later analyzed according to a scheme developed by researchers at Baylor School of Medicine where Hodges completed his post-doctoral education before being recruited to UNC Chapel Hill.

The literature says that infants have the capacity to self-regulate and their food intake needs can vary from feeding to feeding.  Parents who allow the child to push away when they are full or who understand and are attuned to those cues that infants and children give — and Hodges has identified these cues for fullness — may be supporting healthier behaviors for life.

One goal of the study is to provide education for prospective parents about ways to support a healthy feeding environment.  Another is to track youngsters based on the types of cues they received from parents to see if outcomes overtime contributed to obesity and Type II Diabetes onset in children.

Hodges was a Nurse Practitioner before he decided to go back to school to complete a PhD and become a nurse scientist.  Hodges notes  that the research he and other nurse scientists conduct helps support  RNs at the bedside who use the evidence-based knowledge he develops to improve the quality of care for patients and their families.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 96 other followers

%d bloggers like this: