In the study, researchers presented 281 mothers with cartoon drawings of toddlers ranging in size from scrawny to plump, and asked them to select the drawing that most closely resembled their child.
Nearly 70% of the women misjudged their toddler’s body size, but the rate was much higher among the mothers of overweight children. Fully 94% of those mothers identified their child’s size as being in the normal range, the study found.
Previous studies in older children have produced similar results. The new research, published this week in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, is the first to show widespread misperceptions of body size among the parents of toddlers.
As rates of overweight and obesity hover near historic highs, parents’ views of what constitutes a normal, healthy weight may be skewed, says lead author Erin R. Hager, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in Baltimore.
The fact that chunky thighs and dimpled knees are widely seen as a sign of health and good parenting probably doesn’t help either, Hager adds. “Our society really values chubby infants and toddlers,” she says.
Baby fat may be cute, but too much of it sharply increases a child’s risk of being overweight later in life. “A lot of parents don’t understand that, even in infancy or toddlerhood, if your child is overweight then they won’t necessarily grow out if it,” Hager says. “There are certainly…kids that grow out if it, but most kids don’t.”
The toddlers in the study ranged in age from 12 to 32 months. Twenty-nine percent were considered overweight, meaning they were in the 85th percentile or above for their age group on World Health Organization growth charts.
The mothers of overweight toddlers were generally satisfied with their child’s weight. Eighty-two percent indicated they had no desire for their child to be smaller, and 4% said they wanted their child to be even larger.
Two-thirds of the mothers in the study were living at or below the poverty line, and just over half were receiving food stamps under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Although childhood obesity rates tend to be higher in low-income populations, Hager says she’d expect to find the same misperceptions among more affluent mothers.
“Other studies of older children and adolescents that have taken place in mixed-income populations or middle-income populations have shown similar findings,” she says.
Understanding how parents view their children’s body size is important, Hager says, because moms and dads of overweight kids are less likely to help their children eat better and get more exercise if they don’t think their child’s weight is an issue.