Mothers Often Miscalculate Toddler Body Size
May 9, 2012

Mothers Often Miscalculate Toddler Body Size

Connie K. Ho for

Chubby babies, who used to be seen as cute, aren´t exactly the norm anymore. A report in the May issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine has stated that mothers of overweight toddlers often miscalculate their child´s size. The publication, part of the JAMA Network, is included in the “Nutrition and the Health of Children and Adolescents” issue.

The authors of the study believe that feeding behaviors are influenced by perceptions of a child´s body size and that misperceptions could cause mothers to feed their children more than necessary, possibly making a healthy child overeat.

"Many people believe that a chubby baby is a sign of good parenting, but this is not accurate anymore,” said Dr. Erin R. Hager in an article by WebMD.

Hager, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland´s School of Medicine, worked with colleagues to observe 281 mother-toddler pairs from a suburban Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) clinic as well as an urban pediatric clinic serving most low-income families.

"Mothers of overweight toddlers were more than 88 percent less likely to accurately perceive their child's body size. “¦ This may be because high-weight status is often regarded as a sign of successful parenting, especially during the early years when parents are responsible for their child's health, nutrition and activity opportunities," noted the authors.

In the study, the average of toddlers was 20.2 months and 54.1 of them were male. Most of the mothers were obese (71.9 percent) and ranged from 18 to 46 years of age. According to CBS News, the researchers first weighed the babies in their diapers. Then the mothers were given the task of choosing a photo that matched the silhouette of their baby from images that depicted various weights. The findings of the experiments showed that almost 70 percent of the mothers were incorrect in figuring out their toddler´s size, with many choosing photos that were two images away from their child´s actual weight. 71.5 percent of mothers were satisfied with their toddler´s size, with the mothers of overweight toddlers more satisfied than the mothers of underweight toddlers.

"In conclusion, the majority of mothers were satisfied with their toddler's body size, yet were inaccurate in their perception of their child's actual body size. “¦ Future studies should examine how parental satisfaction and/or accuracy are related to parenting behaviors including feeding behaviors and encouragement of physical activity," stated the authors.

Other medical professionals believe that the research provided is useful in understanding parents´ perceptions of the weight of their child.

"This research is instructive because an emerging body of literature suggests that parents with accurate perceptions of weight have greater readiness to make weight-related behavioral changes and are more effective making them,” commented Eliana M. Perrin (, M.D., M.P.H., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in a commentary accompanying the article.

Perrin also advocated for more public health education programs that could bring awareness on weight issues to the community.

"We likely need a public health campaign that allows us to visualize the range of healthy toddlers' and older children's weight. I am imagining posters showing photographs of children of all ages between the 5th and 85th percentiles saying, 'I'm at a healthy weight!' This type of campaign may help reset our nationally normed pictures of health, helping parents appreciate healthy undulations of weight," described Perrin in the commentary.

In her commentary, Perrin concludes that it is important to address socio-economic and cultural factors that may influence parents´ perceptions of their child´s size.

"In short, we should be able to explore parental perception and satisfaction with children's weight and preserve cultural ideals and pride in children's growth but also help parents achieve healthy weight trajectories,” explained Perrin. “We can do this by counseling with sensitive and culturally competent dialogue and providing guidelines for eating and activity tailored for age, culture and socioeconomic status compatible with lifelong health.”