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Parents turn blind eye as preschoolers tip scales

A study by USF and Johns Hopkins University (JHU) researchers reports that parents, unless told otherwise by pediatricians, are more likely to underestimate their children’s weight – something that could lead to life threatening illnesses later in life.

Raquel Hernandez, lead author of the study and assistant professor of pediatrics at USF Health, began the study during the first year of her fellowship at JHU in July 2008 and completed it while transitioning to her current position at USF in April.

“I began to notice that children – especially at the preschooler ages of two to five – were becoming overweight,” Hernandez said. “It was hard to get their parents to engage in that.”

She said that parents of overweight or obese children seemed offended when pediatricians told them that their children were not healthy.

Hernandez said the study involved interviews of 150 parents of children two to five years old at the Harriet Lane clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The study’s goal was to look at the parents’ perception of an “ideal or healthy image in preschoolers.”

She said the study showed that nearly one-third of preschoolers studied were overweight or obese. However, 83 percent of all parents reported their children as “about the right weight.”

Hernandez said that less than 8 percent of the parents remembered a pediatrician telling them that their child was gaining weight too fast or was overweight.

One reason that Hernandez gave for parents’ lack of awareness about their child’s weight problem is that, even if their pediatrician had brought it to their attention, there are few “clear recommendations” on how to correct it because of their young age.

“The best way to screen your child to see if they are overweight or obese is to use the body mass index (BMI),” Hernandez said.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, BMI is a “calculation that uses height and weight to estimate body fat.”

This number can then be charted on a BMI-for-age growth chart and compared to that of other children in the U.S. From this percentile ranking, a child will either be classified as underweight, healthy weight, overweight or obese.

“I used the growth charts for the study,” Hernandez said. “And, while the parents liked them, the majority of the parents said that they would prefer their doctor to be ‘upfront’ with them about their child’s weight problem.”

She said the next step in her study, once funding is available,
is to work with pediatricians to enable comfortable communication with parents about their children’s weight.

A pediatrician not being able to talk to a parent about a child’s weight problem is a “huge risk factor” for the child, Hernandez said, and is something that pediatricians need to improve on.

“Letting parents know that their child isn’t healthy early on lets them think about choices at that point that can make a difference,” she said. “Having families that are aware makes a lot of difference.”