Parents Should Take Early Action Against Child Obesity

Child eating a cheese sandwich
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Obesity has been on the rise in the United States for decades, and children haven’t been immune. In 2017-2018, 19.3% of children ages 2 to 19 were obese, which amounts to about 14.4 million toddlers, older children, and teens.

You may be so busy trying to keep up with your active little toddler that the possibility of them being overweight or obese is far from your mind. But your child may be at risk. 

Obesity in Toddlers

Unfortunately, obesity has become commonplace among American toddlers, with recent data estimating that about 13.4% 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 Amanda Staiano, PhD, MPP, spokesperson for The Obesity Society and assistant professor at Louisiana State University's Pennington Biomedical Research Center. The rate of severe obesity continues to increase as well, says Dr. Staiano.

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 adolescence (such as 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 older children and adults and develop related health conditions.

It becomes increasingly difficult to get a child from the obese category to the healthy weight category as a child gets older. Eating and activity habits quickly become ingrained and the weight difference becomes greater.

For example, a two-year-old 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.

In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team of researchers used recent data on childhood obesity to make informed projections about the future of today's children. They predicted that without intervention, 57.3% will be obese at the age of 35.

Is Your Toddler Obese?

How do you know if your child is overweight or obese? Similar to cognitive, gross motor, and fine motor skills toddler 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. 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.

You can also calculate your child’s weight category. For ages 2 and older, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers an online BMI calculator that uses your child’s age, height, and weight to suggest whether they are underweight, healthy weight, overweight, or obese. Note: This calculator only works for children ages 2 and over.

The body mass index (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. Staiano says, "a two-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.”

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age.

Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

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.

Start by making 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.

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

7 Ways to Improve Your Toddler's Health

Parents should feel empowered to make changes at home, regardless of the weight category a child falls into. Making healthy changes can help to reduce the risk of childhood obesity.

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

"Think about places your child spends time," says 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 eaters, 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 a particular food. 

Help Your Toddler Get Plenty of Sleep

Regular naps and an early, consistent bedtime help keep toddlers well-rested, which means they 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 together, mute the commercials or use a service like Netflix or Hulu to skip the commercials altogether. 

Make Sure Your Child Gets Plenty of Exercise

Ideally, toddlers will be physically active most, if not all, days of the week—and outdoor play is ideal, 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 tumbling class, or let them scoot or roll on a ride-on toy.

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.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity facts.

  2. Sahoo K, Sahoo B, Choudhury AK, Sofi NY, Kumar R, Bhadoria AS. Childhood obesity: causes and consequencesJ Family Med Prim Care. 2015;4(2):187-192. doi:10.4103/2249-4863.154628

  3. National Institutes of Health. Weight management: helping your child.

  4. Ward ZJ, Long MW, Resch SC, Giles CM, Cradock AL, Gortmaker SL. Simulation of growth trajectories of childhood obesity into adulthoodN Engl J Med. 2017;377(22):2145-2153. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1703860

By Louisa Fitzgerald
 Louisa Fitzgerald is a writer, digital content strategist, blogger, and recovering marketing professional. Her articles focus mainly on content about parenting and healthcare.