Good health starts early in life, earlier than most of us suspect, and it often involves little things we do automatically, things we may not even think about. Take crying and restless babies. How moms respond to that often daily crisis can help them become toddlers with a lower body mass index (BMI), a study has found. Since toddlers with healthy BMIs will likely become healthy-weight adults, those early steps can mean you are helping your child potentially avoid many of the obesity-related chronic health conditions of adulthood.

Many of our behaviors are imprinted on our brains early in life. Babies who are comforted with food often become children or adults who use food to soothe their stresses later in life, leading to overweight and obesity. So researchers from the Penn State College of Medicine and the University of Georgia wanted to see what would happen if new parents were taught early how to address typical infant needs without relying on food. The idea was to see if responsive parenting — rather than food — would have a long-term effect on the BMI of their toddler at age three.

Swaddling, giving a pacifier or using white noise may soothe a baby when they are fussy but not hungry.

Nearly 300 first-time moms participated in the study. Half of the moms (the intervention group) were taught various ways to take care of their babies when they were exhibiting normal infant behaviors, like fussiness, while the other half were educated about home safety (the control group).

Nurses began visiting new moms in the intervention group soon after the births of their babies. They saw them four times during the baby’s first year and again at ages one and two. The moms were taught ways to deal with babies' needs across four behavioral states: drowsy, sleeping, fussy, and interactive, such as during play and feeding.

Parents were taught ways to calm fussy babies who weren’t hungry without feeding them; to not use food as a reward; to avoid overfeeding babies when they showed signs of being full; to improve sleep by establishing calming bedtime routines; and soothing and appropriate responses to baby’s waking at night. Mothers also were encouraged to “teach” their babies to eat healthy by exposing them to fruits and vegetables repeatedly, even if they refused them at first.

By age three, the toddlers whose mothers had been taught how to respond to their babies’ needs had lower BMIs than kids whose mothers had only been taught about home safety, providing hope that educating parents so they have more than food to rely on when it comes to soothing their babies could be a way to promote healthy weights among young children and begin to cut the rising rates of obesity among children.

To Calm Your Fussy Baby

Babies cry for many different reasons, explained one of the researchers, Leann L. Birch, of the University of Georgia. Parents are often so concerned about making sure their baby is getting enough to eat for proper growth and development that their first response to crying is to feed them, she explained. Guiding parents to choose and use the right strategies to address a baby’s behavior can help prevent overfeeding and also teach babies not to depend on food for comfort. Swaddling, giving a pacifier, or using white noise may soothe a baby when they are fussy but not hungry, according to Birch.

“Taking care of young children isn't one size fits all, and from my perspective as a pediatrician, there may be different parts of the program that work for different people,” researcher Ian Paul, a professor of pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine, said in a statement. “There may have been some children in the program who may have otherwise been bad sleepers, or some parents who would have used the old school, ‘clean your plate’ philosophy before we taught them not to do that. I think different parts will be important for different families.”

With 23 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds in the U.S. already overweight or obese, anything parents can do early to set kids on a healthier course will help. “It gives us hope that interventions like this one can alter growth trajectories and help toddlers be healthier as they get older,” Paul said, adding that while more research is needed, “…to have significant effects through age three years is very promising.”

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.