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Babies on a diet? Trend is rising, but experts say don't count kids' calories

FARGO - Obesity in children has become a serious health problem in the United States, to the point where even babies are at risk.

In Cass and Clay counties, almost 19 percent of babies and toddlers under 2 years old are considered overweight or obese, according to data from local health care organization clinics in Cass and Clay counties from July 1, 2010, through June 30.

Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Consequently, pediatricians nationwide are seeing an upsurge in parents concerned about their infants' weight. And more parents are putting their babies and toddlers on diets.

Sometimes that can have disastrous results.

An extreme case in Washington state made headlines last year when Britainny and Sam Labberton were charged with third-degree criminal mistreatment for starving their baby and putting laxatives in her bottle so she wouldn't become fat.

While parents should not go to the extremes of counting their babies' calories, they do control their babies' diets and need to make sure they're given healthy foods, says Dr. Rebecca Bakke, a Sanford Health pediatrician.

"I usually tell parents when they can control what goes in their babies' bodies, they should as much as possible and give them as healthy meals as possible," she says.

The consequences of obesity in children is that pediatricians are now treating kids for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea and orthopedic problems, Bakke says.

"We're seeing some problems in kids now that pediatricians never used to have to deal with, but we are now because there are so many overweight kids," she says. "It's really scary."

To prevent babies from becoming overweight children and adults, Bakke recommends breast-feeding exclusively for six months and then adding solid foods and continuing to breast-feed until the child is 1 year old.

Parents should not give babies solid foods before they are 4 months old, and once they are eating solids, parents should avoid juice, sweets and high-calorie snacks such as french fries, Bakke says.

"They're developing their palate, so introducing them to a wide variety of healthy foods is really important," she said.

And if at first they don't like something, like peas, Bakke says it's important to try, try again.

"I always say they're not really allowed to have those preferences as infants," she says.

It can take 10 or more times of trying something for a child to get used to it, says Rory Beil, Cass Clay Healthy People Initiative director.

"They might spit broccoli out the first three or four times, but then by maybe 10, it's not such an odd taste," Beil says.

Parents also need to refrain from turning their baby into a "containerized child" by confining him or her in things like swings, strollers, high chairs, car seats, and exersaucers (stationary baby seats surrounded by toys), Beil said. While the devices are designed to keep children safe and in some cases entertained, they are not designed to give kids the mobility they need.

"There's a really close tie between movement and brain development in young kids," Beil says. "It isn't just about preventing heart disease when this little one becomes older."

Involve kids with cooking

As the Health and Wellness director for YMCA of Cass and Clay Counties, Stefanie Meyer is probably more aware of the importance of nutrition than most parents.

She breast-fed her daughter and made her own baby food, and now that Mackenzie is 2 years old, Meyer enlists her daughter's help in the kitchen. While Meyer chops carrots, celery and green beans for soup, Mackenzie tosses the fresh vegetables into the pot.

"If children help prepare the foods, they're more likely to be excited about eating them," Meyer says.

She has also encouraged physical activity and minimized time spent in constricting devices like walkers and jumpers to 20 to 30 minutes a day.

"This is just something I believe strongly in, that we can prevent major chronic diseases and issues if we just take care of ourselves right away and make that a priority," Meyer says.

Erin Strand's 2-year-old is involved in gymnastics and swimming, and her 5-year-old is involved with sports. Even if her girls don't want to eat their vegetables, they have to at least try them, she says.

"We try to eat healthy, which is sometimes easier said than done," Strand says. "We try to lead active lifestyles."

She is also trying to give her 5-month-old twin boys a healthy start.

She breast-fed both of her girls until they were a year old and is still exclusively nursing her twins, even though it presents more of a challenge.

Strand also tries to make sure they get their tummy time every day. That's time infants spend on the floor on their stomachs to strengthen their muscles.

"As a whole, our family tries to lead a healthy lifestyle," she says.

Child caring

It's not up to parents alone to guard against obesity.

Child care providers may be the most important sector in society when influencing children's health, says Beil, with the Healthy People Initiative.

"Many children get two-thirds of their meals in child care," he says. "They spend eight-plus hours a day in these environments, so child care has at least as big of an impact as mom and dad and the family setting does, maybe even bigger."

Shirley Johnson has been providing child care in her Fargo home for 35 years.

In that time she has seen concern over childhood obesity grow, but she said parents are also in more of a rush and often get fast food for supper.

"Children love that stuff," she says. "It's almost addictive."

Johnson is very conscious about serving the kids she cares for nutritious, home-cooked food with plenty of fruits and vegetables, she says.

She also limits TV time and makes sure the children play outside.

"If the weather's bad, I put on music CDs for dancing and jumping, and the kids love it," she says.

A study done in elementary school children with a body mass index of 85 or higher showed that on average, overweight children crossed into that category at 21 months of age, Beil says, adding that if parents wait until their children are 5 years old, they've missed the boat.

"It really falls on our shoulders," he says. "Children can't chose whether they're going to be active or not. They're not choosing their food. They respond to the environment we put them in."

Healthy babies

Tips for raising healthy children from Cass Clay Healthy People Initiative, Dakota Medical Foundation and North Dakota and Northwest Minnesota Child Care Resource and Referral:

* Plan an hour each day of active playtime.

* Play outside every day when possible.

* Limit the amount of time babies are confined in things like swings and exersaucers.

* Limit screen time for television, movies and video games.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526