Parents could reward infants with activity or cuddling rather than food, encouraging healthy behaviour and lifestyle in the future, says a study. Babies who get upset easily and take longer to calm down might be at higher risk of obesity. The study found that children can learn healthier lifestyles only when parents model healthy behaviour themselves and don’t immediately use food to comfort a child who is crying or fussing.
“The research tells us that differences in behaviour begin as early as infancy and those differences can influence health behaviours that impact future health risks,” said Kai Ling Kong, Researcher at the University of Buffalo.
In the study, 105 infants between the age of nine to 18 months were taught to press a button to earn a reward. They completed the task twice and received either a piece of their favourite food as a reward or ten seconds of a non-food reward, such as blowing bubbles. Parents were instructed to say only specific phrases while the child completed the task. As the task went on, it became increasingly difficult for the infants to earn the reward as they had to press the button many times. The amount of work they were willing to do was calculated by counting the number of times the child was willing to press the button to get the reward.
The child’s temperament was assessed through a detailed, online questionnaire that parents completed. “We found that infants that rated higher on cuddliness had lower food reinforcement. That means they were willing to work more for a non-food reward versus a food reward. So an infant who enjoyed being held closely by a care-giver was less motivated to work for food,” Ling Kong added.
If a parent sees high relative food reinforcement in their child, it is not cause for immediate concern. Instead, the parent could evaluate their child’s relationship with food, encouraging the child to engage in activities other than eating, especially as a reward, the study suggested.
“Using rewards other than food, such as a trip to the playground or engaging in active play with their parents, may help reduce their child’s tendency to find pleasure in food,” the researcher mentioned, in the paper published in the journal Childhood Obesity.