Parents Should Take Early Action Against Child Obesity

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It’s no secret that obesity has been on the rise in the United States over the last three decades, and children haven’t been immune. In 2016, 18.5% of children ages 2 to 18 were obese, which amounts to about 13.7 million children and adolescents. As a parent of a toddler, you may be so busy trying to keep up with your active little one that the possibility of your toddler being overweight or obese may be one of the last things on your mind. 

Obesity in Toddlers

Unfortunately, obesity has become commonplace among American toddlers, with recent data estimating that about 14% of children aged 2 to 5 years are obese—rates that increase with age.

"Obesity remains especially high in children who are an ethnic minority or who are from low-income households," says Dr. Amanda Staiano, spokesperson for The Obesity Society and assistant professor at Louisiana State University's Pennington Biomedical Research Center. Plus, she adds that the rate of severe obesity, which is the very high end of the weight spectrum, continues to increase as well.

It's important that parents don't ignore their toddler's weight. Being obese places a child at higher risk for many serious health conditions, including some that can start during childhood and the teen years, including diabetes, heart disease, asthma, high cholesterol, orthopedic problems, certain cancers, menstrual abnormalities, and sleep apnea.

Also, many children with obesity face social and emotional impacts, such as discrimination, negative body image, lower confidence, and bullying from peers, all of which can be harmful to the child’s self-esteem and even their academic performance. 

While a toddler may not be at risk for any of these immediate consequences, the longer they remain overweight, the more likely they are to be overweight as adults and develop related health conditions. It is important to note that it becomes increasingly difficult to get a child from the obese category to the healthy weight category as a child gets older because eating and activity habits quickly become ingrained and the weight difference becomes larger. 

For example, a 2-year-old child who is overweight may need to stay the same weight (without gaining) for several months for their height to “catch up.” But a 10-year-old may need to actively lose weight in addition to letting their height catch up in order to reach a healthy weight.

Is Your Toddler Obese?

How do you know if your toddler is overweight or obese? Similar to cognitive, gross motor, and fine motor skills milestones, the range of what is "normal" when it comes to a toddler’s weight varies widely and a few pounds can make a big difference depending on height. Also, note that toddlers grow at different rates and some kids slim down a bit when they begin to walk.

Your child's pediatrician can tell you if your child is overweight or obese—and help you come up with healthier activity and eating plans, as needed.

Parents can educate themselves by going online and finding out their child’s weight category. For ages 2 and older, the CDC offers a calculator that allows parents to enter their child’s age, height, and weight and learn if their child is classified as underweight, healthy weight, overweight, or obese. Note: This calculator only works for children ages 2 and over because that’s when health professionals start using the body mass index (BMI) growth charts.

The BMI calculator can be helpful as it’s not always easy to "see" obesity, especially in toddlers who are growing and changing so quickly. For example, Dr. Sataiano says "a 2-year-old girl who has an average height (37 inches) would be considered underweight if less than 29 pounds, overweight if between 35 and 37 pounds, and obese if over 38 pounds. It can be tough to visually tell the difference between a couple of pounds, so the calculator is really helpful.”

What to Do If Your Toddler Is Overweight

If your toddler is overweight, there’s no need to panic. Learning your child is classified as obese or overweight, may be upsetting but it's the first step toward taking action to address your child's weight gain.

As a parent who is concerned about their child's weight, the first thing you should do is make an appointment with your child's pediatrician. Together, you can come up with a plan to help your child get to (and maintain) their optimal weight. Note that for some kids, this may skew to the upper or lower limits of the "normal" weight range, depending on what is ideal for their body.

At the young age of 1 or 2 years old, the goal is not for the child to lose weight, but rather to either slow down weight gain or to keep the weight the same.

This allows the child’s height to catch up to the child’s weight. Also, note that you should never put a child on a weight loss diet unless their doctor tells you to do so and avoid severe limits on food—gradual changes are best.

Home Tips for a Healthier Toddler

Parents also should feel empowered to make changes at home, regardless of the weight category a child falls into. Making healthy changes can help to ensure they are reducing the risk of childhood obesity. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Avoid fruit juice: While fruit juice can be included once in a while as part of a toddler's healthy diet, it's better to stick to water or milk. Fruit juice often has artificial sweeteners or added sugar, which equals empty calories that won't fill your little one up. Even without added sweeteners, juice doesn't have the satiating fiber that whole fruits offer.
  • Be an advocate for your child when they are not in your care: "Think about places your child spends time and ways to make them healthier," suggests Dr. Staiano. "If your child goes to a preschool or daycare, find out what the child is being fed, what kind of physical activity the child does each day, and how much (if any) screen time is being allowed. Then, find ways to help the center improve policies and practices to create a healthier environment for all of the children."
  • Encourage your child to try nutritious foods: Toddlers have a reputation for being picky, but keep offering fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins. Research shows it can take several exposures to a new food before convincing a young child to try it, much less like it. Try different preparations of veggies (like raw, mashed, roasted, or pureed) that change the way the food feels in the mouth. Something as simple as preparation can help increase the chances your selective eater will enjoy it. 
  • Help your toddler get plenty of sleep: Naps and an early bedtime help keep a child well-rested, which means your toddler will be less likely to be cranky or have a tantrum at the suggestion of trying new foods or participating in physical activities. 
  • Keep screen time to a minimum: Not only does an increase in screen time typically mean a decrease in active time, but screen time also can mean your child is seeing commercials for sugary snacks and cereals that feature colorful (and potentially enticing) cartoon characters and catchy jingles. When you watch TV, mute the commercials or use a service like Netflix or Hulu to skip the commercials altogether. 
  • Make sure your child is getting plenty of exercise: Ideally, they will be physically active most, if not all, days of the week—and outside, when possible. There is no need for a "formal" exercise routine with a toddler or preschooler. Take your child to local playgrounds, enroll them in a toddler class, like tumbling, soccer, or dance, or simply let them run around in the yard. You also can make physical activity a regular part of family time.
  • Model eating nutritious foods: Start healthy family mealtime habits. Cook nutritious foods. Turn off cell phones, the television, and other devices, and sit down together for family dinners. Include everyone in the family when adopting healthier habits so that your toddler doesn't feel singled out—and you'll all benefit from better nutrition and more exercise.

A Word From Verywell

As a parent of a toddler, remember that you can teach habits now that lower the risk of childhood obesity or obesity later in life. The changes you make can help protect and improve your child's health and set them up for a lifetime of positive eating habits.

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Article Sources
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  3. National Institutes of Health. Weight management: helping your child. Reviewed January 2012.