Obesity and Toddlers

by Jennifer Kelly Geddes
Medically Reviewed by Micah Resnick, M.D., F.A.A.P. on March 21, 2022

Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States. Learn more about the causes of obesity and how to prevent it.

Babies and toddlers are plump by nature — those big, round cheeks and dimpled knees are the absolute sweetest! And experts say parents don’t need to worry about the weight of children younger than age 2. But as your child grows older, you may start to have more questions.

Assessing your own child’s weight isn’t easy for a parent, especially since kids come in all shapes and sizes depending on their genetics, metabolism and other factors. To understand more about toddler weight ranges, the causes and effects of childhood obesity and some helpful ways you can prevent it, read on.

What is childhood obesity?
Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile as outlined by the growth charts put together by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). BMI is calculated using weight and height, and it’s sex- and age-specific.

Unfortunately, childhood obesity is at an all-time high in this country, affecting more than 19 percent or about 14.4 million kids and adolescents ages 2 to 19 years. According to the CDC, 13.4 percent of children ages 2 to 5 years and 20.3 percent of kids 6 to 11 years of age have obesity.

How much should my toddler weigh?
It can be difficult to determine just by looking at your child whether he’s too heavy for his age. Not every big kid is overweight. In some cases, kids sport body frames that are larger than average. And since growth isn’t a steady progression during childhood, mini spurts can occur along the way, which means your tot may gain weight in what seems like an uneven manner.

Both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend that you calculate your child’s body mass index (BMI), either yourself or with your pediatrician’s help. To calculate BMI, take accurate measurements of your tot’s height and weight and enter this info into the CDC’s BMI percentile calculator. The results will tell you your child’s BMI percentile for his age and sex.

If he falls between the 5th and 85th percentiles, then he’s at a healthy weight. If he falls at or above the 85th percentile he’s overweight, and if he’s at the 95th percentile or above he has obesity. But keep in mind that your toddler’s BMI isn’t the only factor to consider.

Remember, a child’s BMI is merely a starting point — one way to gauge whether your child is overweight. It’s important to note that some kids who are muscular tend to have high BMIs without being overweight. As mentioned, there’s a range of what’s considered “normal” for toddlers and older kids, depending on their growth rates, metabolism, family history and other factors.

Causes of childhood obesity
The reasons for childhood obesity may seem obvious at first but in reality, several causes can lead to a child being overweight or obese, including the following:

Diet. A high-calorie diet — often comprised of too many processed snacks, fast food and sweets — can contribute to obesity. Sugary beverages like juice and soda can also contain a surprising number of calories.
Exercise. Moving less often burns fewer calories and can contribute to weight gain. Sedentary routines, like spending a lot of time watching TV, can be a factor.
Genetics. If many people in your family are overweight or have obesity, especially close relatives, it could put your child at risk for the same health issue.
Psychological conditions. Sadness, boredom or stress at home, whether related to emotional or financial problems, may lead to overeating and extra weight gain.
Socioeconomic factors. These can include living in an area with no safe places to run and play or in a food desert without access to fresh produce and other healthy fare.
Medications. Certain prescription drugs can contribute to cases of obesity in children.

Effects of childhood obesity
Being an overweight toddler can put your child at increased risk for several medical problems, such as:

Heart disease. A less-than-healthy diet can cause high blood pressure and buildup in the arteries to develop, which in turn may up the risk of a heart attack or stroke down the road.
Type 2 diabetes. Childhood obesity and not enough exercise can lead to this chronic condition.
Joint issues. Knee, hip and back strain from excess weight can occur.
Breathing troubles. Both asthma and sleep apnea are more common in kids who are overweight.
Liver disease. A fatty liver can result from obesity, damaging this vital organ.
Depression and anxiety. Sadly, kids with obesity may be subject to teasing and bullying because of their weight, which can harm their self-esteem.

Preventing childhood obesity
Talk to the pediatrician for a full assessment of your child’s weight. But in general, your family’s doctor will likely recommend serving up wholesome foods and providing ample opportunities to get active. These tips can help:

Shop right. Fill your grocery list with nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy foods.
Enjoy treats in moderation. You don’t have to cut out fast food and dessert completely — just aim to indulge on occasion. And choose non-food rewards (like a fun outing to the library or playground) when you want to make your little one feel special.
Serve up healthy beverages. Juice offers no nutritional benefits to babies under 12 months, and the AAP suggests serving no more than 4 ounces a day for kids 1 to 3 years of age. Opt for whole fruit (think apple slices versus apple juice) because it provides important fiber and additional nutrients not found in a juice box.
Have consistent snack times and mealtimes. Sticking to three meals and two snacks per day can help prevent overeating.
Encourage self-feeding. Let your child wield the fork (as opposed to you spooning out each bite), and let him stop when he’s ready. He has a better sense of how hungry he is than you do. This will help him learn to listen to his own hunger and fullness cues.
Follow screen time guidelines. With the exception of video chatting with relatives, the AAP recommends no screen time for toddlers until 18 to 24 months and one hour a day or less for kids 2 to 5 years.
Move as a family. Look for ways to be active together. Take your child to the park, go on walks together and consider family activities like hiking, biking and swimming.
Walk the walk. Yup, it’s up to you to set a good example, so do all you can to eat well and exercise yourself. When you model a healthy lifestyle, your child will be more apt to follow.

Obesity can have lifelong consequences if left untreated. But with the guidance of your pediatrician and a good eating and exercise plan, you can help your toddler establish healthy habits that will benefit him now and later in life.

https://www.whattoexpect.com/toddler-health/overweight-child.aspx