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Can a baby be too fat?

When I read earlier this week about the 4-month-old Colorado baby who was denied health insurance because of his “pre-existing condition” – namely, being in the 99th percentile for height and weight for his age – I laughed out loud.

When he was a baby, my son also fell in the 99th percentile of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s height/weight calculations. In fact, he was a lot heftier than this Colorado boy. My son reached the 17-pound milestone at three rather than four months!

According to press reports, the insurance company claimed that any child above the CDC’s 95th percentile was too fat and thus at risk for developing obesity-related health problems down the road.

That’s the part that made me laugh. My son was certainly a chubby baby (fed primarily, as an infant, on breastmilk, like the Colorado baby). But did he become an obese child?

Anybody reading this who knows my son is smiling now. Although today, in his 20s, my son is quite solidly built (but not overweight), throughout his childhood he was, as he himself jokingly puts it, “lanky.”

He also grew to be 6-feet-4.

Can a baby be too fat?
But this story of the Colorado baby got me wondering. Should parents worry if their baby starts piling on the pounds soon after birth?

To answer that question, I spoke yesterday with Peter Dehnel, MD, a pediatrician and medical director for Children’s Physician Network, an affiliate of Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. Parents with large babies will find his answers reassuring.

“Most babies will tend to eat the calories they need,” he said. “It’s hard to overfeed a baby.”

In fact, during all the years he’s been a practicing pediatrician, Dehnel has encountered only one truly overweight baby — and that child was more than a year old. “It’s very rare,” he said.

Genetics, not an infant’s feeding schedule, is responsible for babies falling into the CDC’s 99th percentile, he added.

And although theoretically it might be possible to overfeed a breastfed baby, most studies indicate that “breastfeeding is a protective factor for obesity,” he said.

Of course, whether your baby is breastfed or bottlefed, Dehnel suggests not using feedings to simply keep the baby quiet or happy. “But if you pay attention to the cues they give in terms of hunger,” he said, “99 percent of the time you’re going to do just fine.”

And never put your infant or baby “on a diet” because you think he or she is too big. Doing so can lead to serious health problems.

“If you start restricting calories, you can actually put your child at risk in another way,” Dehnel said. “I had a parent of a 9-month old who started to give the baby skim milk. At 12 months, that child was in the failure-to-thrive category.”

Do, however, make sure your babies get physical aerobic activity. Allow them to crawl around (once they’re able to), and actively play with them.

“Some babies — and this is more after six to nine months — are very content to just sit there,” said Dehnel. “From a personality standpoint, that could be a risk factor for obesity later on.”

Fortunately, Rocky Mountain Health Plans realized their error (or didn’t like all the publicity) and reversed their ruling. They now acknowledge that a baby can be above the 95th percentile and still be perfectly healthy.

Who knew? Well, I did, actually.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Kenneth Tipton on 10/16/2009 - 12:11 pm.

    Although, yes a baby can be too fat. This one sure wasn’t! I couldn’t believe this story when I first heard it ( There is no doubt that this is foreshadowing of things to come.

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