Are you worried about your toddler’s weight? Here’s when it is a cause for concern and why.
For parents, it’s usually a good sign when a baby gains weight. It means they’re healthy and growing. But how early is too early to wonder if your child is too heavy?
The truth is that toddlers can be overweight, and it’s not always easy for parents to tell if they are.
So it’s essential to check in with your child’s pediatrician to see if they are on track size-wise.
If you get a handle on their weight at this age, you can even put an early stop to future health problems, such as obesity and diabetes.
When it comes to assessing your child’s weight, it isn’t always easy to tell. Still, it’s crucial for your toddler’s health that you figure out if he’s packing more pounds than he should.
Being an overweight toddler can set your child up to become a fat adult, putting him at increased risk for all kinds of medical problems, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
With childhood obesity at an all-time high in this country (an estimated 14 per cent of kids ages 2 to 5 are obese), you’d be wise to determine if your child is tipping the scales toward obesity so that you can do something about it now.
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Obesity in Toddlers
Unfortunately, obesity has become commonplace among toddlers, with recent data estimating that about 14% of children aged 2 to 5 years are obese—rates that increase with age.
Obesity remains exceptionally high in children who are an ethnic minority or who are from low-income households. Plus, the rate of severe obesity, which is the very high end of the weight spectrum, continues to increase as well.
Parents mustn’t ignore their toddler’s weight.
Being obese places a child at higher risk for many severe health conditions, including some that can start during childhood and the teen years, including diabetes, heart disease, asthma, high cholesterol, orthopedic problems, certain cancers, menstrual abnormalities, and sleep apnea.
Also, many children with obesity face social and emotional impacts, such as discrimination, negative body image, lower confidence, and bullying from peers, which can be harmful to the child’s self-esteem and even their academic performance.
While a toddler may not be at risk for any of these immediate consequences, the longer they remain overweight, the more likely they are to be overweight as adults and develop related health conditions.
It is important to note that it becomes increasingly difficult to get a child from the obese category to the healthy weight category as a child gets older because eating and activity habits quickly become ingrained, and the weight difference becomes more considerable.
For example, a 2-year-old child who is overweight may need to stay the same weight (without gaining) for several months for their height to “catch up.”
But a 10-year-old may need to actively lose weight in addition to letting their height catch up to reach a healthy weight.
Is Your Toddler Obese?
How do you know if your toddler is overweight or obese?
Similar to cognitive, gross motor, and fine motor skills milestones, the range of what is “normal” for a toddler’s weight varies widely, and a few pounds can make a big difference depending on height.
Also, note that toddlers grow at different rates, and some kids slim down a bit when they begin to walk.
Where do you start? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend that you calculate your child’s body mass index (BMI) — an indicator of body fat based on weight and height that can help you assess whether your child is overweight or obese.
To figure out your child’s BMI, you need to get accurate measurements of your tot’s height and weight.
Then, enter this information into the CDC’s BMI Percentile Calculator. The results will tell you your child’s BMI percentile for his age and gender.
If he falls between the 5th and 85th percentiles, then he’s considered to be at a healthy weight.
If he falls at or above the 85th percentile, he’s overweight, and if he’s at the 95th percentile or above, he’s considered obese.
But before you assume the worst, keep in mind that your toddler’s BMI isn’t the only factor to consider.
It’s merely a starting point — one way to gauge whether your child is overweight. And it’s important to note that some muscular kids tend to have high BMIs without being bulky.
So once you learn your child’s BMI, take that information with you to your pediatrician so you can get a full assessment of your child’s weight.
Your child’s pediatrician can tell you if your child is overweight or obese—and help you develop healthier activity and eating plans as needed.
Parents can educate themselves by going online and finding out their child’s weight category.
The CDC offers a calculator that allows parents to enter their child’s age, height, and weight and learn if their child is classified as underweight, healthy weight, overweight, or obese for ages two and older.
Note: This calculator only works for children ages two and over because health professionals start using the body mass index (BMI) growth charts.
The BMI calculator can be helpful as it’s not always easy to “see” obesity, especially in toddlers who are growing and changing so quickly.
For example, “a 2-year-old girl who has an average height (37 inches) would be considered underweight if less than 29 pounds, overweight if between 35 and 37 pounds, and obese if over 38 pounds.
It can be tough to visually tell the difference between a couple of pounds, so the calculator is beneficial.”
How Children Become Overweight
Like adults, children become overweight when they consume more energy through food and drink than they use.
But, unlike adults, children are still growing, which means they need more energy for growth.
It’s vital that they get this energy from nutritious, healthy food and not from foods filled with fat and sugar.
Most overweight children don’t need to diet. They may not even need to lose weight.
Instead, they can try to keep their weight the same as they grow taller. That way, they will steadily get closer to a healthy weight.
But if your child has an overweight BMI, they must change their eating behaviour and do regular physical activity to achieve this.
Good Food for Young Children
When it comes to your child’s diet, you don’t need to count calories. Instead, please give them a healthy, balanced diet that will set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating.
The best way to get your child to eat healthily is to lead by example. If your child is overweight, think about attitudes to food in your home.
Do you eat together as a family or grab snacks on the go? Is the television on at mealtimes? Do you prepare food yourself or rely on takeaways?
Establish a regular pattern of meals, so the whole family can enjoy mealtimes together, instead of allowing your child to snack whenever they feel like it.
Cook the same food for everybody, even if everybody can’t eat at the same time. Switch the television off at mealtimes, as it’s easy to overeat if distracted.
What to Do If Your Toddler Is Overweight
If your toddler is overweight, there’s no need to panic. Learning your child is classified as obese or overweight may be upsetting, but it’s the first step toward taking action to address your child’s weight gain.
As a parent concerned about their child’s weight, the first thing you should do is make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician.
Together, you can develop a plan to help your child get to (and maintain) their optimal weight. This may skew to the upper or lower limits of the “normal” weight range for some kids, depending on what is ideal for their bodies.
At the young age of 1 or 2 years old, the goal is not for the child to lose weight but rather to either slow down weight gain or keep the weight the same.
This allows the child’s height to catch up to the child’s weight.
Also, note that you should never put a child on a weight loss diet unless their doctor tells you to avoid severe food limits—gradual changes are best.
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Home Tips for a Healthier Toddler
Parents also should feel empowered to make changes at home, regardless of the weight category a child falls into.
Making healthy changes can help to ensure they are reducing the risk of childhood obesity. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Avoid Fruit Juice
While fruit juice can be included once in a while as part of a toddler’s healthy diet, it’s better to stick to water or milk. Fruit juice often has artificial sweeteners or added sugar, which equals empty calories that won’t fill your little one up. Even without added sweeteners, juice doesn’t have the satiating fibre that whole fruits offer.
Be an Advocate for Your Child When They Are Not in Your Care
Think about places your child spends time and ways to make them healthier.
If your child goes to a preschool or daycare, find out what the child is being fed, what kind of physical activity the child does each day, and how much (if any) screen time is being allowed.
Then, find ways to help the centre improve policies and practices to create a healthier environment for all children.
Encourage Your Child to Try Nutritious Foods
Toddlers have a reputation for being picky but keep offering fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins.
Research shows it can take several exposures to a new food before convincing a young child to try it, much less like it.
Try different veggie preparations (like raw, mashed, roasted, or pureed) that changing the way the food feels in the mouth.
Something as simple as preparation can help increase the chances your selective eater will enjoy it.
Help Your Toddler Get Plenty of Sleep
Naps and an early bedtime help keep a child well-rested, which means your toddler will be less likely to be cranky or have a tantrum at the suggestion of trying new foods or participating in physical activities.
Keep Screen Time to a Minimum
Not only does an increase in screen time typically means a decrease in idle time, but screen time also can mean your child sees commercials for sugary snacks and cereals that feature colourful (and potentially enticing) cartoon characters and catchy jingles.
When you watch TV, mute the commercials or use a service like Netflix or Hulu to skip the commercials altogether.
Ensure your child is getting plenty of exercise: Ideally, they will be physically active most, if not all, days of the week—and outside, when possible.
There is no need for a “formal” exercise routine with a toddler or preschooler. Instead, take your child to local playgrounds, enrol them in a toddler class, like tumbling, soccer, or dance, or let them run around in the yard. Of course, you also can make physical activity a regular part of family time.
Model Eating Nutritious Foods
Start healthy family mealtime habits—Cook nutritious foods.
Turn off cell phones, the television, and other devices, and sit down together for family dinners.
Include everyone in the family when adopting healthier habits so that your toddler doesn’t feel singled out—and you’ll all benefit from better nutrition and more exercise.
Focus on food quality over quantity. When they’re a baby, you’re focused on the amount of food. However, your choices are limited — breastmilk or formula — so you focus a lot on how much they’re eating.”
Once babies turn into toddlers, though, parents need to turn their attention to the quality of their diets.
This is the time as a parent when you can set good habits by offering various healthy foods.
Pickiness sets in, but don’t be too quick to write off food just because they don’t seem to like it.
Likewise, don’t swoop in with unhealthy snacks just because they ate two bites at breakfast. Your job is to provide healthy options and then let them decide how much to eat.
Mealtimes should be pleasurable and include all ages. That means Mom, Dad, and kids all eat together — and they all eat the same thing.
If you want your 2- or 3-year-old to nibble on their broccoli, “that means you need to eat the broccoli, too.
Get brothers or sisters involved, too. For example, if an older child can model eating vegetables, it can motivate that younger child.
Make Changes Gradually.
It’s not actually about losing weight for a child this age; it’s about helping them grow healthfully.
And sometimes, when parents jump into a new lifestyle wholeheartedly, it can leave a child confused or upset.
If your toddler is used to having three cups of juice a day, for example, go down to two, then one or none over a few weeks or months.
Don’t completely ban favourite treats — birthday cake is OK every so often, just not every day, Walsh says.
Instead, show them that it’s good to choose healthy foods.
At this age, teaching that ‘this is how we eat’ and ‘this is how we play will establish a foundation as they become older and have to make their own choices.
Other Things You Can Do
Focus on feeding your little one healthy foods and getting him to be active. Here’s how:
- Consistently serve up nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy foods.
- Go easy on processed, high-fat and fast foods.
- Limit the juice in your toddler’s sippy cup to 4 ounces per day (or dilute his juice with water to make it last longer, cut the calories in each swig, and avoid sugary sweetened drinks like soda).
- Have consistent snack times and mealtimes (broken down into six mini-meals) instead of letting your toddler graze throughout the day, which can lead to overeating.
- Let your child feed himself (as opposed to you spooning out each bite) and let him stop when he’s ready. He has a better sense of how hungry he is than you do. This will help him learn to listen to his hunger and fullness cues.
- Don’t reward your tot with treats. That can lead to an unhealthy, emotional relationship with food.
- Try to limit screen time to one hour a day or less. This will allow more time for physical activity.
- Look for ways to be active together. Take your child to the park, go on walks together, and consider family activities like hiking and biking.
- Walk the walk — or run the run. Eat well and exercise yourself. When you model a healthy lifestyle, your child will be more apt to follow your lead.
How to Get Kids to Be More Active
Physical activity burns calories that your child has consumed. It’s also essential if your child is to develop strong, healthy bones and muscles. Best of all, being active is part of childhood, and it’s great fun.
Children who can walk on their own should be physically active every day for at least 3 hours, spread throughout the day, indoors or out.
Apart from sleeping, children under the age of 5 should avoid being inactive for long periods. For example, watching TV for hours or being strapped into a buggy for too long isn’t good for their health and development.
Tips for Fussy Eaters
If your child refuses to eat certain foods, it can seem challenging to introduce a healthier diet.
Try to change your child’s eating habits one step at a time. First, think about the rest of the family’s eating habits, as your child may be copying them. For example, if you’re not eating vegetables, your child is unlikely to.
Think about the healthy, balanced diet you want your child to eat and make that standard in your house.
Gradually introduce your child to a broader range of foods, including new fruits and vegetables. Try the following tips:
- Give them bite-sized amounts at first. Large portions of unfamiliar foods will be off-putting.
- Praise your child for trying new foods, but don’t criticise them if they don’t. Mealtimes should be fun, not stressful or like a test.
- Evidence suggests that fresh foods sometimes need to be offered up to 15 times before they are accepted, but you only need to offer a minimal amount (bite-sized) each time. Be patient and keep giving the food to your child on different occasions.
As a toddler parent, remember that you can teach habits now that lower the risk of childhood obesity or obesity later in life. The changes you make can help protect and improve your child’s health and set them up for a lifetime of positive eating habits.
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