June 23, 2011 -- A growing number of preschool-age children in the U.S. are overweight or obese and greater efforts are needed to address the problem, the health policy group Institute of Medicine (IOM) says.
But instead of focusing solely on what parents can do, the report highlighted ways federal and state regulators, doctors, and child-care workers can help prevent obesity in very young children.
"Contrary to the notion that chubby babies are healthy babies and that young children grow out of their baby fat, it is looking like children who are overweight early may be more likely to be overweight and obese later on," committee chair Leann L. Birch, PhD, tells WebMD.
Limit TV Time
Birch, who directs the Pennsylvania State University Center for Childhood Obesity Research, says addressing the problem in very young children is critical because obesity-related conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure are occurring with greater frequency among older children, teens, and young adults.
The IOM report included these recommendations for state and federal regulators:
- Requiring day care centers and preschools to provide the opportunity for at least 15 minutes of physical activity per hour to toddlers and older children, while allowing infants to move freely at times with appropriate supervision.
- Limit TV and other screen time to no more than 30 minutes for half-day day care programs and one hour for full-day programs.
- Day care centers and other child-care providers should be required to promote healthy sleep times during the day.
Kids Need More Sleep, Exercise
Birch says just like their parents, very young children appear to be sleeping less overall these days. Studies show that insufficient sleep time is a risk factor for obesity.
It is recommended that children age 2 and under get 12 hours or more of sleep each day and children between the ages of 2 and 5 get at least 11 hours of sleep.
Keeping TVs out of bedrooms, creating environments that promote naps and nighttime sleep, and establishing sleep routines are all important to promoting healthy sleep habits, IOM committee member Debra Haire-Joshu, PhD, MPH, of Washington University in St. Louis tells WebMD.
The report stressed the importance of giving young children plenty of opportunity to be active during the day.
"We know that children in many day care settings are not getting enough physical activity during the day," Birch says.
She says several states now require day care centers to provide the opportunity for at least two hours of physical activity during an eight-hour day.
"Children tend to be active in short bursts, so if they have the opportunity for activity throughout the day they are likely to expend more energy," she adds.
Studies have found that many parents don't realize that overweight infants and toddlers are at higher risk for obesity later in childhood.
For this reason, the IOM committee is calling on pediatricians to measure infant weight, height, and body mass at every well-child visit to identify those at risk and help educate parents about healthy eating and exercise habits.
The IOM committee called on health care providers to encourage new moms to breastfeed exclusively for six months, and the group called on federal officials to establish clear dietary guidelines for children under the age of 2.
"This is the period of life when children are establishing food preferences and eating patterns," Birch says.