Start these habits early to reduce your infant's risk of becoming overweight later.

Baby girl lying on a scale
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When she was 3 months old, my pudgy, dimpled daughter, June, earned the nickname "Chubber Thighs"--along with praise from our pediatrician for her consistently impressive weight gain. Never once did the doctor utter the word overweight. And certainly not obese.

A scant five years later, the term baby fat has become a little less cute in medical circles. In fact, studies now suggest that gaining weight too quickly in infancy is closely linked to weight problems later in childhood, says Meghan Slining, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Public Health. This finding worries experts, considering the fact that 18 percent of school-age children are medically considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While no one is suggesting that your baby should go on a diet or start counting calories, the following expert pointers can help her maintain a healthy weight throughout her childhood.

Breastfeed, If Possible

For every month you nurse, up to age 9 months, you reduce the odds that your baby will become overweight by 4 percent-6 percent if you skip formula and nurse exclusively, according to a review published by the CDC. "Bottle-fed infants simply get more food than breastfed infants do," says Raquel Hernandez, M.D., assistant professor of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, in Baltimore. Nursing moms may be more likely to watch their baby for signs that he's done eating, instead of relying on visual markers like an empty (or a half-full) bottle. Since they're not consistently being overfed, breastfed infants learn to stop drinking once they become full.

Whether you breast- or bottle-feed, follow your infant's lead when he signals he's had enough. Until age 3 or 4 months, babies will turn their head, close their lips tightly, or fall asleep when they're full, says Dr. Hernandez. As they become more alert and distractible--around 4 to 6 months--they'll look around when they're full. Once they're eating solids, they'll push food away, clench their jaw shut, or shake their head no. Though your baby's meals may seem small to you, keep in mind that his stomach is only the size of his fist, says Dr. Hernandez.

Be Smart About Solids

Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) recommendation to start solid foods at about 6 months, more than 40 percent of parents start introducing them before then, according to research in Pediatrics. This number is cause for concern, considering that a separate Pediatrics study found that formula-fed babies who start solids before 4 months are six times more likely to be obese by preschool, compared with those who started after that age--though researchers didn't see increased risk in breastfed babies.

When you do begin feeding your baby purees and cereal, sit her in a high chair at the table and eat with her--rather than hastily spooning food into her mouth on the go. A study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that having family meals may help kids maintain a healthy weight. Start this practice early to help it become a habit.

Make Sleep A Priority

Infants who sleep fewer than 12 hours within a 24-hour period have twice the risk of being overweight by age 3 than those who sleep more than 12 hours, according to a study from Harvard Medical School. Although studies haven't been done on babies to explain why lack of sleep affects their weight, research on adults suggests it can wreak havoc on the hormones that govern appetite, zap energy, and decrease the ability to break down fat. "Poor sleep habits likely affect infants in a similar way," says Dr. Hernandez. Keeping a consistent bedtime and nightly routine--which may include giving your baby a bath or a calming massage--and putting him in his crib when he's drowsy but still awake can help, advises Lauren Carton, M.D., a pediatrician in Rye Brook, New York.

Set Aside Time For Exercise

When she's awake, put your baby on her stomach several times a day so she has a chance to build her neck, arm, and shoulder muscles. "Some parents give up as soon as their baby starts crying," says Dr. Hernandez. However, tummy time will become more enjoyable once she is strong enough to hold herself up. When that day arrives, place toys a foot or two in front of her hands to encourage her to try to grab them, suggests Dr. Carton. From about 5 months on, using an Exersaucer or jumper, or bouncing while you hold her will strengthen her hips and legs. Before you know it, she'll be burning more calories by crawling, walking, and running.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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