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Researchers found that of nearly 900 parents of 2-month-olds, many reported at least one habit studies have linked to increased odds of childhood obesity -- including putting their baby to sleep with a bottle, "always" trying to get their baby to finish the milk or offering milk every time the baby cried.
What's more, nearly half reported watching TV half of the time they fed their infant.
"Based on the outcomes of this study, more education is needed for parents, families and communities," said Kelly Pritchett, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia in Athens and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She was not involved in the study.
Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in teens in the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This puts kids at risk for life-threatening conditions such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels later in life.
Those types of studies don't definitively prove a cause-and-effect relationship, however.
Still, "breast-feeding likely lowers the risk of childhood obesity to some extent," said Dr. Eliana Perrin, the lead researcher on the new study and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
One theory is that breast-feeding helps establish hunger and fullness "cues" early in life, noted Pritchett.
Regardless of the specific effects on weight, the American Academy of Pediatrics -- a leading group of U.S. pediatricians -- and other experts encourage breast-feeding exclusively for about six months. They recommend breast-feeding continue after babies start solid foods -- ideally for at least the first year of life.
Most of the parents in the new study (mainly mothers) were on Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor.
Beyond low rates of breast-feeding, Perrin's team found that parents often had other habits that could potentially promote unhealthy weight gain in the long run.
Two-thirds of parents did not follow the academy's recommendations regarding "tummy time" -- placing the baby on its belly to play for at least 30 minutes a day.
More than 40 percent of parents put their babies to sleep with bottles, while 20 percent tried feeding every time their baby cried, and 38 percent "always" tried to get their baby to finish the milk.
Perrin said that whether a baby breast- or bottle-feeds, it's important for parents to look for cues that their infant is full.
Some telltale signs are when your baby turns away or seals her lips closed. And while crying can be a sign of hunger, Perrin said, it isn't always. So if your baby is crying while you're trying to feed her, she may actually need something else.
And as children grow, Perrin said, "one of the best things" parents can do is to help kids notice when they are truly hungry -- instead of turning to food in response to something else.
The extent of TV exposure was a surprise, Pritchett said. A full 90 percent were exposed to TV (meaning it was on in the room where the baby was) for an average of nearly six hours per day. Half of parents said their baby actively watched TV for about a half-hour each day, on average.
The potential consequences of TV in infancy aren't clear, but they're a concern, said Perrin, noting there could be lasting effects on kids' attention.
Plus, "it's not the same as parents talking to them and interacting with them," Perrin said.
For its part, the academy of pediatricians discourages any TV time before the age of 2 years.
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