The quality of the emotional relationship between a mother and her young child could affect the potential for that child to be obese during adolescence, according to a study.
Researchers analyzed national data detailing relationship characteristics between mothers and their children during their toddler years. The lower the quality of the relationship in terms of the child’s emotional security and the mother’s sensitivity, the higher the risk that a child would be obese at age 15, according to the analysis.
Among those toddlers who had the lowest-quality emotional relationships with their mothers, more than a quarter were obese as teens, compared to 13% of adolescents who had closer bonds with their mothers in their younger years.
The findings mirror previous research by these scientists that showed toddlers who did not have a secure emotional relationship with their parents were at increased risk for obesity by age 4 1/2. This body of work suggests the areas of the brain that control emotions and stress responses, as well as appetite and energy balance, could be working together to influence the likelihood that a child will be obese.
These findings suggest obesity prevention efforts should consider strategies to improve the mother-child bond and not focus exclusively on eating and exercise, the researchers said.
“It is possible that childhood obesity could be influenced by interventions that try to improve the emotional bonds between mothers and children rather than focusing only on children’s food intake and activity,” said Sarah Anderson, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study.
“The sensitivity a mother displays in interacting with her child may be influenced by factors she can’t necessarily control. Societally, we need to think about how we can support better-quality maternal-child relationships because that could have an impact on child health.”
The researchers analyzed data from 977 participants in the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a project of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The sample in this national study included diverse families living in nine states whose children were born in 1991.
As part of that national study, trained observers assessed child attachment security and maternal sensitivity by documenting interactions between mothers and their children at three time points: when the children were 15, 24 and 36 months old.
After accounting for children’s gender and birth weight, children with the poorest quality early maternal-child relationship were almost 2 1/2 times as likely to be obese as adolescents than were children who had the best relationships with their mothers.
Anderson and colleagues suggest this association between early childhood experiences and teen obesity has origins in the brain. The limbic system in the brain controls responses to stress as well as the sleep/wake cycle, hunger and thirst and a variety of metabolic processes, mostly through the regulation of hormones.
“Sensitive parenting increases the likelihood that a child will have a secure pattern of attachment and develop a healthy response to stress,” Anderson said. “A well-regulated stress response could in turn influence how well children sleep and whether they eat in response to emotional distress — just two factors that affect the likelihood for obesity.”
Obesity may be one manifestation of dysregulation in the functioning of the stress response system, according to the researchers. Parents help children develop a healthy response to stress by protecting them from extreme levels of stress, responding with support and consistently to normal levels of stress and modeling behavioral responses to stress.
“The evidence here is supportive of the association between a poor-quality maternal-child relationship and an increased chance for adolescent obesity,” Anderson said. “Interventions are effective in increasing maternal sensitivity and enhancing young children’s ability to regulate their emotions, but the effect of these interventions on children’s obesity risk is not known, and we think it would be worth investigating.”
The study appears in the January 2012 issue of Pediatrics. To read a summary and access the study via subscription or purchase, visit http://bit.ly/sbvhsV.