IMG 0084Childhood obesity is a serious health concern and is associated with a variety of chronic health conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mental health disorders. Currently, 18.5 percent of children in the United States suffer from childhood obesity. This percentage rises to over 30 percent if you include children who are overweight.

Many factors contribute to childhood obesity, including diet, physical activity and the environment. Yet research demonstrates that susceptibility to childhood obesity starts at the onset of life. Several studies show that feeding practices during infancy play a crucial role in childhood obesity. Feeding practices include how, when and what parents decide to feed their infants.

Parental characteristics influence how parents implement feeding during infancy and throughout childhood. For instance, parental self-efficacy, or parents’ belief in their ability to succeed in parenting, may be a key element to exploring risk factors that promote childhood obesity.

Trained as a pediatric nurse practitioner, Jessica Bahorski worked for many years in school health where she encountered childhood obesity first hand. Now a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the UAB School of Nursing, Bahorski studies feeding practices in infants to explore potential mechanisms of modification to prevent childhood obesity. Research suggests that parental self-efficacy impacts infant feeding practices, and consequently, childhood obesity.

Of particular interest are populations at greatest risk for childhood obesity. Bahorski’s research focuses on low-income, African-American, first-time mothers and their infants. Her study explored parental dietary choices for infants, infant growth patterns and parental self-efficacy. Data for her research was derived from the “Infant Care, Feeding, and Risk of Obesity dataset from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Results demonstrated that women in this study had low breastfeeding rates, gave infants solid food earlier than recommended and gave infants unhealthy foods – all risk factors associated with childhood obesity. Results also demonstrated that married mothers and those with a college education were more likely to breastfeed.

IMG 8094Additionally, a higher sense of parental self-efficacy was associated with higher weight gain across the first year of life. Findings suggest that mothers who had higher beliefs in their abilities as parents had infants who gained more weight, placing them at increased risk for obesity, and that higher education is potentially associated with better feeding practices.

It is imperative for new mothers to seek available resources, ask questions and know that it is OK to not know it all. Eating patterns established in infancy can be carried throughout life, so it is important to implement good patterns as early as possible.

Bahorski defended her dissertation this month and has accepted a faculty position at Florida State University where she hopes to extend this line of research by working with more diverse samples in rural communities and strengthen infant feeding knowledge in high-risk mothers. Bahorski hopes her research will contribute to targeted interventions to reduce the risk of childhood obesity, especially in at-risk populations.