KIPS BAY — Teaching moms and dads how to be better parents could help stem the alarming rise in childhood obesity — even when exercise and nutrition aren't part of the curriculum — according to a new study from NYU Langone Medical Center.
Dr. Laurie Miller Brotman, director of the Center for Early Childhood Health and Development at the NYU Child Study Center, led a team that followed 186 4-year-olds from low-income, minority families in New York City over the course of several years, as some of them participated in intervention programs.
Researchers found that parents who were taught good parenting skills were more likely to have healthier kids, while parents who did not receive the training were more likely to have kids who became obese by second grade, the study found.
Notably, the sessions did not focus on exercise, weight or nutrition, but rather on helping parents become more responsive and nurturing, according to a press release.
“It’s a very unsophisticated approach to think that it's simply about calories in and calories out,” said Brotman, whose study was published on Monday in the online issue of Pediatrics, in an interview.
“It’s all connected," she continued. "There are these really complex interactions between how kids deal with stress and how kids cope with situations and interact with kids socially."
Brotman and her team focused their research on two long-term studies involving children and parents who had participated in intervention programs including ParentCorps, a program offered through the NYU Child Study Center, and Incredible Years, an international program that offers training for parents, children and teachers.
Brotman explained that ParentCorps and programs like it help parents teach their children to regulate their emotions and cope with stress. They help parents set limits, promote positive behavior and enforce discipline, she added.
Some of the students in the study were placed in a control group, while others participated in weekly two-hour sessions with their parents over a period of 13 weeks.
When those children were analyzed several years later, Brotman and her fellow researchers found that parental intervention courses contributed to a lower instance of obesity among high-risk children.
Of the children from the control group, who did not receive intervention, 54 percent were obese by second grade, Brotman said.
Meanwhile, only 24 percent of those kids who had participated in early intervention programs became obese. These children also exhibited lower blood pressure rates and lower consumption of carbohydrates, the analysis showed.
“In those kids, this approach prevents obesity in a pretty remarkable way,” she noted.
The study comes amid statistics that show one in every five American children now qualify as obese. Brotman said that some studies have shown a link between parental behavior and childhood obesity. However, her study is the first to illustrate how intervention programs geared toward improving parental practices can affect a child's health.
“Those early changes for the right kids can make a huge difference in these really important outcomes,” Brotman explained. “The evidence for the link has been there, but nobody has looked at it until us.”