Can Toddlers Be Overweight?

Worried about your toddler or preschooler’s weight? When it is a cause for concern and why.

By Jennifer Rainey Marquez

For parents, it’s usually a good sign when a baby gains weight. It means they’re healthy and growing. But how early is too early to wonder if your child is too heavy?

The truth is that toddlers can be overweight, and it’s not always easy for parents to tell if they are. So it’s important to check in with your child’s pediatrician to see if they are on track size-wise. If you get a handle on their weight at this age, you can even put an early stop to future health problems, such as obesity and diabetes.

Know Their Numbers

It’s not just weight or height that you need to watch during toddlerhood, but also body mass index (BMI). It’s a measure of body fat based on height and weight. People of all ages can calculate their BMI, but it can be an especially accurate measurement for toddlers, who don’t have a lot of muscle mass that affects their weight, says Kristi King, RD, senior clinical dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Starting at the 2-year checkup, your pediatrician should go over your child’s weight, height, and BMI. They’ll probably show you a growth chart with how your child’s numbers compare to other kids of their age and gender, called their BMI percentile. For example, a child in the 60th percentile has a BMI that’s higher than 60% of other kids their age.

These percentiles help you know if your baby is at a healthy weight. For toddlers:

Underweight = BMI below the 5th percentile
Healthy weight = BMI in the 5th to 84th percentile
Overweight = BMI in the 85th to 94th percentile
Obese = BMI in the 95th percentile or above

Toddlers often grow in spurts, so the measurement at a single visit won’t always be a cause for serious concern. If your child is in the 85th percentile or higher, your pediatrician will likely ask you to come back again in a few months for another check-in. “When you have two consecutive visits that reflect that a child is overweight — say your child is in the 89th percentile and then at the next visit they are in the 92nd percentile — that’s when you realize that there’s an issue,” King says.

It’s Not About Looks

Once your child is old enough to start walking, running, and jumping, they’ll likely shed much of their baby weight. But the transition from chubby baby to thinner kid doesn’t happen overnight. “It’s still normal for a 2-year-old to have a prominent tummy,” King says. “It’s not necessarily about how they look.”

Instead, think about how well your child can move. Other than BMI, “one sign that there’s a weight issue in the works, even before that 2-year mark, is if your child is having trouble walking, rolling over, or pulling themselves up easily,” King says. If their weight keeps them from being active, talk to your pediatrician.

What You Can Do

Healthy habits will not only help your child’s weight, it will teach them how to live well for a lifetime. Here are some strategies to keep in mind:

Focus on food quality over quantity. “When they’re a baby, you’re really focused on quantity of food,” says Stephanie Walsh, MD, medical director of child wellness at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “Your choices are limited — breastmilk or formula — so you focus a lot on how much they’re eating.”

Once babies turn into toddlers, though, parents need to turn their attention to the quality of their diets.

“This is the time as a parent when you can set good habits by offering a variety of healthy foods,” Walsh says. “Pickiness sets in, but don’t be too quick to write off a food just because they don’t seem to like it.”

Likewise, don’t swoop in with unhealthy snacks just because they ate two bites at breakfast. “Your job is to provide healthy options, and then let them decide how much to eat,” Walsh says.

Model healthy choices. “Mealtimes should be pleasurable and include all ages,” Walsh says. That means Mom, Dad, and kids all eat together — and they all eat the same thing. If you want your 2- or 3-year-old to nibble on their broccoli, “that means you need to eat the broccoli, too.”

Get brothers or sisters involved, too. “If an older child can model eating vegetables, it can really motivate that younger child,” Walsh says.

Make changes gradually. “It’s not actually about losing weight for a child this age, it’s about helping them grow healthfully,” Walsh says. “And sometimes when parents jump into a new lifestyle wholeheartedly, it can leave a child confused or upset.”

If your toddler is used to having three cups of juice a day, for example, go down to two, then one or none over the course of a few weeks or months. Don’t completely ban favorite treats — birthday cake is OK every so often, just not every day, Walsh says.

Instead, show them that it’s good to choose healthy foods. At this age, “teaching that ‘this is how we eat’ and ‘this is how we play’ will establish a foundation as they become older and have to make their own choices,” King says.