Child Obesity: 8 Red Flags to Watch For

Obesity Risk Factors Start Early in Life

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 19, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

May 19, 2005 -- Before a baby is born or early in life, he or she may already be at risk for child obesity, says a British study.

Eight child obesity risk factors stand out, and some start before birth or when children are still in diapers, says the study in BMJ Online First.

These factors increase the risk that a child will be obese by age 7:

  • Parental obesity
  • Higher birth weight
  • Spending more than eight hours watching TV when 3 years old
  • Sleeping less than 10.5 hours per night when 3 years old
  • Size in early life
  • Rapid weight gain in the first year of life
  • Rapid catch-up growth between birth and 2 years
  • Early development of body fatness in the preschool years (before age 5-6 years, when body fat should be increasing)

Obesity Rising

Child obesity is rising on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S., an estimated 16% of children aged 6-19 years were overweight in 1999-2000 -- a 45% increase from 1988-1994, says the CDC. That doesn't mean that all of those children were obese; obesity is at the extreme end of being overweight.

Being obese as a child can have a lifelong impact. Research has shown that children who are obese or overweight often have weight problems when they grow up. They may also be at higher risk for other health problems.

To learn more about the warning signs of child obesity, the University of Glasgow's John Reilly and colleagues studied more than 9,000 British children. Some of the eight risk factors were seen in a subset of about 1,000 children in that group.

Like Parent, Like Child?

Kids were more likely to be obese at age 7 if one or both parents were obese. The risk was higher if both parents were obese, says the study.

This isn't the first time parental obesity has been tagged as a risk factor for child obesity. In the July 2004 issue of Pediatrics, researchers reported that maternal obesity in early pregnancy more than doubles a child's risk of obesity at ages 2-4 years.

Time Sleeping, Watching TV Mattered

Getting more sleep and watching less TV lowered kids' risk of being obese at age 7.

The details on that aren't totally clear. The researchers don't know if physically active kids sleep more than others, or if kids were munching on food while they watched TV.

Those are two risk factors that could be modified. Parents can also help their kids by addressing their own weight issues and modeling a healthy lifestyle that they'd like their children to copy.

Future studies should look at ways to modify risk factors before birth, in infancy, or in early childhood, says the study.