Obesity Prevention in Infants Benefits Second-Born Too

Marcia Frellick

January 06, 2022

An obesity prevention program targeted at parents of infants benefited not only firstborn infants but their second-born siblings as well, a new study suggests.

According to a statement from the National Institutes of Health, who funded the study, it is the first such infant obesity intervention to show the spillover effect. Findings were published online Dec. 21, 2021, in Obesity.

The program is called Infants Growing on Healthy Trajectories (INSIGHT) responsive parenting (RP) intervention, and it included guidance on feeding, sleep, interactive play, and regulating emotion.

Parents were given guidance by nurses who came to their homes on how to respond when their child is drowsy, sleeping, fussy, and alert. They also learned how to put infants to bed drowsy, but awake, and avoid feeding infants to get them to sleep; how to respond to infants waking up at night; when to start solid foods; how to limit inactive time; and how to use growth charts.

The control group program focused on safety and matched the guidance categories. For example, early visits included information on prevention of sudden infant death syndrome for sleep, breast milk storage and formula for feeding, and safe bathing.

Jennifer S. Savage, Center for Childhood Obesity Research, Penn State University, University Park, led the study that enrolled 117 infants in a randomized controlled trial. Mother and firstborn children were randomized to the RP or home safety intervention (control) group 10-14 days after delivery. Their second-born siblings were enrolled in an observation-only ancillary study.

Second-born children were delivered 2.5 (standard deviation, 0.9) years after firstborns. Anthropometrics were measured in both siblings at ages 3, 16, 28, and 52 weeks.

Firstborn children at 1 year had a body mass index (BMI) that was 0.44 kg/m2 lower than the control group (95% confidence interval, −0.82 to −0.06), and second-born children whose parents received the RP intervention with their first child had BMI that was 0.36 kg/m2 lower.

“What we saw here is that it worked again," coauthor Ian Paul, MD, MSc, professor of pediatrics and public health sciences at Penn State University, Hershey, said in an interview.

“Once we imprint them with a certain approach to parenting with the first child, they're doing the same thing with the second child, which is wonderful to see," he said.

He noted that this happened with second children without any reinforcements or booster information.

Paul said it's still not clear which of the interventions – whether related to feeding techniques or sleeping or activity – helps most. And for each family the problematic behaviors may be different.

Responsive parenting programs have shown success previously among firstborns, the authors wrote, but 80% of those children grow up with younger siblings, so an intervention that also benefits them is important.

Weighing the Costs of the Intervention

The intervention was extensive. It involved four hour-plus nurse visits a year, often by the same nurse who built a relationship with the family.

But Ms. Savage said that it is possible to replicate INSIGHT on a larger scale in the United States with the dozens of home visitation models.

“Currently, 21 home visitation models meet the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services criteria for evidence of effectiveness, such as Nurse Family Partnership, Family Check-up, and Early Head Start Home Based Option. There is an opportunity to use home visitation models at the national scale to potentially interrupt the cycle of poor multigenerational outcomes such as obesity," she said.

Paul said the initial investment “can save money in the long term," given what's at stake. “We know that 20%-25% of 2- to 5-year-olds are already overweight or obese and if they are already overweight or obese at that age, that;'s likely to persist."

However, he acknowledged that staff shortages and costs are a challenge.

“Other countries have made that investment in their health care system," he said. “In the U.S. only a fraction of new mothers and babies get home visitation. The kind of work that we did for obesity prevention has not yet been incorporated into evidence-based models of home visitation, though it certainly could be."

Paul said his team is hoping to collaborate with others in the near future on expanding this program to such models of home visitation.

Telehealth, though a less desirable option, compared with in-home visits, could also be utilized, he said.

Short of the comprehensive intervention, he said, many of the concepts can be put into practice by pediatricians and parents.

Paul noted that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has endorsed “responsive feeding" as the preferred approach to feeding infants and toddlers. Responsive feeding – helping parents recognize hunger and satiety cues as opposed to other distress cues – is a big part of the intervention.

“Feeding to soothe is not the preferred approach," he said. “Food and milk and formula should be used for hunger." That's something pediatricians may not be stressing to parents, he said.

Pediatricians can also counsel parents on not using food as a reward. “We shouldn't be giving kids M&Ms to teach them how to potty train," he said.

"Promising" Findings

Charles Wood, MD, a childhood obesity specialist at Duke University, Durham, N.C., who was not part of the study, called the findings “very promising."

It also makes sense that the “aha moments" of first-time parents learning from the INSIGHT intervention would carry over to the second sibling, he said.

Wood agreed costs are a big factor. However, he said, the potential downstream costs of not preventing obesity are worse. And this study indicates the benefits may keep spreading with future siblings.

Wood said accessing obesity interventions outside the pediatrician visit can also help. Connecting patients with support groups or dietitians or with a counselor from Women, Infants, and Children can help. However, consistent messaging among the providers is key, he noted.

Wood's research group is investigating text messaging platforms so parents can get answer to real-time questions, such as those about feeding behaviors.

He pointed to a limitation the authors mention, which is that the study was done in mostly White, highly educated, higher-income families.

“There's a big problem with racial disparities and obesity," Wood noted. “We definitely need solutions that address disparities as well."

Mothers included in the study had given birth for the first time and their infants were enrolled after birth from a single maternity ward between January 2012 and March 2014. Major eligibility criteria were that the babies were full term (at least 37 weeks' gestation), single births, and delivered to English-speaking mothers at least 20 years of age. Infants who weighed less than 2,500 g at birth were excluded.

The paper's authors and Wood declared no relevant financial relationships.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; and the Department of Agriculture.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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