Maternal sensitivity refers to a mother's ability to recognize herchild's emotional state and respond with comfort, consistency andwarmth. Psychologists describe securely attached children as thosewho rely on their parents as a "safe haven," which allows them toexplore their environments freely, adapt easily to new people andbe comforted in stressful situations. Toddlers who are insecurelyattached tend to have experienced negative or unpredictableparenting, and may respond to stress with extreme anger, fear or anxiety , or avoid or refuse interactions with others. Using these assessments of maternal sensitivity and childattachment security, Anderson and colleagues developed amaternal-child relationship quality score for their own statisticalanalysis. |
With a range of zero to six, the score served as anaggregate measure of a child's early relationship experience: Eachpoint reflected a child's display of insecure attachment or amother's ranking in the lowest quartile of sensitivity at one ofthe three assessment time points. The researchers designated ascore equal to or greater than three as indicating a poor-qualityemotional relationship. The researchers calculated the body mass index (BMI) of thechildren using their heights and weights measured at or near age 15years. BMIs were converted into percentiles for age and sex basedon growth charts developed by the Centers for Disease Control andPrevention. In accordance with current guidelines, children wereconsidered obese if their BMI scores were at or above the 95thpercentile on those charts.
A total of 241 children, or 24.7 percent, were classified as havinga poor quality maternal-child relationship during early childhoodbased on a score of three or higher. The prevalence of obesity inadolescence was 26.1 percent among these children with the poorestearly maternal-child relationships. The teen obesity prevalence waslower for children with better maternal relationships: 15.5percent, 12.1 percent and 13 percent among those who had scores oftwo, one and zero, respectively. Accounting for children's gender and birth weight two of severalsociodemographic factors that also can influence the quality of thematernal-child relationship and risk for obesity children with thepoorest quality early maternal-child relationship were almost 2 times as likely to be obese as adolescents than were childrenwho had the best relationships with their mothers.
Anderson and colleagues suggest that this association between earlychildhood experiences and teen obesity has origins in the brain.The limbic system in the brain controls responses to stress as wellas the sleep/wake cycle, hunger and thirst, and a variety ofmetabolic processes, mostly through the regulation of hormones. "Sensitive parenting increases the likelihood that a child willhave a secure pattern of attachment and develop a healthy responseto stress," Anderson said. "A well-regulated stress response couldin turn influence how well children sleep and whether they eat inresponse to emotional distress just two factors that affect thelikelihood for obesity." Obesity may be one manifestation of dysregulation in thefunctioning of the stress response system. Parents help childrendevelop a healthy response to stress by protecting children fromextreme levels of stress, responding supportively and consistentlyto normal levels of stress, and modeling behavioral responses tostress.
"The evidence here is supportive of the association between apoor-quality maternal-child relationship and an increased chancefor adolescent obesity," Anderson said. "Interventions areeffective in increasing maternal sensitivity and enhancing youngchildren's ability to regulate their emotions, but the effect ofthese interventions on children's obesity risk is not known, and wethink it would be worth investigating." This research was supported by a grant from the National Institutesof Health. Additional References Citations.
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