Friday, April 6, 2012

A Mother's Influence on Her Child's Diet

      Part One of this Science Friday series discussed a variety of ways that parents can influence their children's food choices. I know that I saw at least one finding discussed in Part one's post at our home this week- namely, a child's ability to control their own food intake. For Q-ball's birthday, we gave her sweet yogurt the day before her birthday, and she devoured it!  On her actual birthday, we presented her with her first cake and ice cream and expected the same results, but she barely touched anything!  I guess she knew she had had enough the night before!
And, that's about all the cake and ice cream she ate!
    This post is going to specifically explore a mother's role in her child's eating habits. As one of the studies I read explained, "Mothers are often one of the most influential people in a young child’s life."  It makes sense, then, that the mother is often the one to have the most influence on a child's food choices. Obviously, I'm a mama, so I found this a really interesting topic to research especially as I am working to instill healthy eating habits in Q-ball.
     Many of the studies I found dealing with parental influences on children's eating habits focused on preschool-age children.  However, I did find one that looked specifically at a mother's actions while she was just introducing solids to her child- from 6 months to 1 year. Even at this young age, at least two studies show, how a mother feeds her baby is related to a baby's weight.  Mothers are much more likely to pressure their "skinny" babies to eat than they are "chubby" babies. This is especially interesting as it is rather common knowledge that fat babies are happy and healthy babies. (Good news for Q-ball! Just the other day a 8- or 9- year old boy at the park came up to us and called her fat!) Mothers who were deemed to be "controlling" during feeding according to researchers were more likely to have babies with slow weight gain.  I thought this finding was so sad- mothers might be jeopardizing their babies' health because of perceived cultural norms!  What is especially interesting about this finding is that researchers theorize that the mothers then see their babies' slowed weight gain as a success.  As such, they continue to restrict the children's feeding in the coming years, and, as we saw in the last post, this will likely eventually lead to overeating by the child!  What a cycle!
     On the other side of the food control spectrum is pushing children to finish their food. The method of directing children to eat was discussed in Part One, but this week, I am going to look at the issue from a slightly different angle.  Many mothers actively encourage their children to finish their plates or to take a couple more bites. But, studies have shown these reminders last beyond dinner time.  In one study, children were given pudding to eat in a laboratory setting on multiple occasions.  When the children's mothers were present (not encouraging them to eat- just present), overweight children (this specific study was comparing normal weight children to overweight children) were much more likely to eat more pudding. Not only did they eat more, they ate faster and took bigger bites!  The researchers concluded that in these cases, the mothers were likely contributors to their children's weight.
      Finally, it is difficult to look through too much research that discusses women and food without coming across information about eating disorders. Unfortunately, little research has been done on any possible effects that a mother's eating disorder may have on how she feeds her child.  But, at least one study does compare how mothers with anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), binge eating disorder (BED), and no eating disorders (No ED) feed their children.  No differences appear in pressuring children to eat across the groups. But, it found that mothers suffering from BN and BED were more likely to restrict their children's food intake.  Additionally, these mothers were much more likely to report that their children had anxiety issues and difficulty eating (although the researchers admit it is difficult to determine the causality of this reporting.)   The study is not a longitudinal study, so it cannot tell us the long-term effects on these children's eating habits. However, it is known that the odds of having an eating disorder are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, so it can be assumed these children would have an increased risk of eating disorders.
   Another blog I follow, Parenting Science, recently published a post about the effect of a mother's weight gain during pregnancy has on the child's weight as an adult. I won't rehash the post, but it turns out that mothers the under-eat during pregnancy increase their babies odds of being obese later in life.  If you are interested, the whole post is available here.
     It's amazing to see the amount of influence that mother's can have on their children's daily habits! What struck me in these studies is that the mother's actions seem so off-hand or slight that she likely does not give them a second thought.  But, the long-term impacts are pretty profound.  It's certainly made me think about how I feed Q-ball and how I eat in front of her.  I vow to no longer eat peanut directly from the jar.  At least in front of Q-ball...

Brown, A. & Lee, M. (2011). Maternal child-feeding style during the weaning period: Association with infant weight and maternal eating style. Eating Behaviors, 12. 108-112.
Munsch, S., Hasenboehler, K., & Meyer, A.H. (2011). Is amount of food intake in overweight and obese children related to their psychopathology and to maternal eating behavior? Journal of Psyhcosomatic Research, 70. 362-367.
Reba-Harrelson, L., Von Holle, A., Hamer, R.M., Torgersen, L., Reichborn-Kjennerud, T. & Bulik, C.M. (2010). Patterns of maternal feeding and child eating associated with eating disorders in the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa). Eating Behaviors, 11. 54-61.


  1. Another fascinating read! You definitely had me thinking more on how I was approaching mealtimes this week, so I'm glad to have even more to go on. It's so sad to think how societal norms may cause us, without even realizing it, to encourage poor eating habits in our children. I'm glad this research is out there and there are writers like you getting the word out.

  2. Thanks! This series certainly makes me think about my eating habits and how I feed Q-ball. I often offer her more food, but I don't push it. I think there's a difference? Especially at her current age with short attention span. The later offerings typically don't work any way, so I guess there's really no change!

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