Soothing Infants with Food is Focus of New Childhood Obesity Study

February 2, 2010

A new Penn State study will look at whether parents who soothe their infants with food may be putting them at risk for obesity or overweight. The study will also be looking at genetics as a factor for obesity.  It is funded by a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases as part of the National Institutes of Health's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding.

“When an infant cries, parents typically have a set of soothing techniques they’ll go through to comfort their child—if one doesn’t work, they move to the next—and somewhere on that list is feeding. It may be, with some children, that using food as a means of soothing distress promotes the association of food with emotional comfort, a characteristic of emotional eaters that is associated with adult obesity,” said Dr. Cynthia Stifter, professor of human development and family studies and principal investigator on the project.

One goal of Stifter’s study is to provide a detailed description of how and when parents use feeding to soothe infants and its relation to weight gain in infancy.  Rapid weight gain in infancy has been linked to childhood obesity.

“There has been much speculation about the role of food in parent soothing of infant distress, but there is no research,” says Stifter. “What is known is that food, especially that containing sugar, has an immediate effect on infant distress and that many middle-income and lower-income mothers endorse using food to soothe an infant’s distress.”

To see how parents respond to their infants’ distress, researchers will be traveling with families to routine doctor appointments in which vaccinations (which commonly cause distress) are administered. Researchers will also keep track of children’s rate of weight gain. Additionally, parents will complete a “daily diary,”  recording whether their child fussed, cried, slept, was content, or was fed at five-minute intervals for three days straight. Parents will also participate in a number of laboratory visits to assess the infants’ emotional reactivity and regulation, and interviews including one conducted by  Penn State’s Diet Assessment Center, which will examine the food environment (e.g., meal location), the context in which food is eaten (e.g., whether the child was crying or fell asleep after eating), and child feeding practices (e.g., whether food was offered to soothe the child). 

The brain’s natural reward system will also play a role in the study. This system releases dopamine into the brain, which results in a feeling of pleasure. “Dopamine basically makes you want more of something,” says Stifter.

The release of dopamine in the brain has been associated with nicotine, alcohol, and other addictions. In this study, Stifter and her colleagues will be thinking of food as the object of an addiction for certain individuals. Stifter and her team will be drawing upon previous research that has pinpointed a set of genes that determine how active a person’s dopamine system is. The theory is that certain individuals are genetically predisposed to be more sensitive to their brain’s reward system.

“We are hypothesizing that the parenting practice of feeding to soothe, or the use of food to soothe infant distress not related to hunger, may interfere with the development of the ability to read internal cues of hunger and fullness which, in certain children with sensitive dopamine systems, may lead to increased energy intake, rapid weight gain in infancy, and subsequent childhood obesity,” said Stifter.

No previous studies have examined parent feeding style in infancy and genetics as precursors to childhood obesity. The results of the study will have implications for the prevention of childhood obesity.


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