Your Child’s Chubby Belly: Should You Worry?

hoola-hoopLast week I saw a little boy in the Feeding Team where I work at a children’s hospital who was referred for food refusal, picky eating, failure to gain weight and a host of other issues. We went through the visit, did our assessment and made our recommendations. At the end of the visit, the mom said to me “I probably should bring my daughter here. I am worried about her, she is only 9 years old and she has cellulite on her stomach! What should I do?” Seriously….my veins actually got this weird feeling. I really understand how they got the expression “that makes my blood boil”.  My blood boils a lot these days….

Anyway, I could tell this poor mom was really concerned, and I was pretty sure she bought into the cultural mantra that being fat is bad and thin is good. And here she was, with her one and only daughter, at the ripe old age of  9 with a chubby belly. And she was worried, but I was not sure why. Was she worried about her health, or that she may end up with a fat child and wouldn’t that be horrible? I did not want to lose this chance to possibly have an impact on a young girl’s self-esteem and body image, and I knew I had to control myself. I needed this mother to buy in to what I had to say in these last few minutes of our appointment time.

So I took a deep breath and asked “How old is your daughter?” and she told me. I then went on to explain normal development and how all children are different in the way they gain weight and grow. Some kids are scrawny much of their young lives, even into their teen years, and only gain weight in their 20’s or even later. Others tend to be a bit chubby and often that fat can be in the tummy, but this is very normal. “Just remember” I said, “how small your daughter is, and how much she will be growing in the next ten years…..her body needs some fat so she can produce the hormones that are going to transform her into a young woman.  Do you really think having a chubby belly at her age is important?” That mom stopped to think. So true! She has a lot of years to go before she ends up with an adult body. So if she should not worry about her daughter’s belly fat, then what should she worry about?

I went on to introduce her to the idea of promoting family health. NOT focusing on one child’s body or weight, but instead, caring about the health and happiness of everyone in the family. That includes dad who is in the habit of drinking soda, and the skinny brother who lives on potato chips and Oreo cookies. How can the entire family be healthier? I gave her a few handouts and websites on promoting a healthy feeding relationship (www.ellynsatterinstitute.com is my favorite). I suggested that she try not to talk about her daughter’s belly, or her body, or anyone’s body in the household and instead work on family health. Getting enough sleep. Limiting screen time to 2 hours or less. Cooking more at home with more family meals, less eating out, more fun outdoor play. That kind of thing. Giving your children the gift of a healthy lifestyle is something we all can work on. Trying to change someone’s genetics is fruitless at best, and worse, so damaging to self-esteem and body image (yes, we are all different, look around you, even elite athletes have different body types, yet all healthy). Your child may indeed turn out looking too thin or too large by cultural standards, but don’t you want them to be themselves? They can still be healthy, depending you what you teach them.

Anyway, I am not sure if I had an impact, or if she bought into the message I was trying to send, but at least I tried.

So, to answer the question: should you worry about your child’s belly? The answer is NO. Non. Ne. Nei. Nie. Nada.

FYI I am the champion

Instead, go Hula Hooping. Now that is important.

 

6 thoughts on “Your Child’s Chubby Belly: Should You Worry?

  1. Jo

    Seriously? Your blood boiled? Because she was concerned her nine year old had cellulite? Cellulite isn’t normal in pre-pubescent children, especially on the stomach. Her concern was valid. Disappointing post to read from a professional.

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    1. thank you so much for your honest comment….I clearly didn’t get my message across, at least to you and I apologize. The word “cellulite” is not what I meant to stress, she could have said “fat”, the point was being overly concerned that your child has a chubby belly is not wise. I am not sure what field you work in, but for me, witnessing young and old women, teens and yes, children, starve themselves for sometimes years with horrible, devesastating consequences (yes, even death, and trust me, when a patient dies because of their eating disorder, it is really sad)….anyway, I definitely have been influenced by my decades of working with people with these issues….and therefore I am a bit passionate about focusing on health rather than weight or body shape or body fat….especially with children. Sorry I missed the boat, I hope that explains it!

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      1. Marisa

        I am a fitness instructor and feed my kids whole, natural Foods or minimally processed at home. We eat healthy most days and don’t allow sugary drinks except on Saturdays. My daughter is 9 and can’t even fit into a size 16 zipped up dress because her midsection is so big. From all the articles I have read, a large midsection is an indication that she could be a risk for heart disease and diabetes. This isn’t about looks…. it’s about health! My other daughter is skinny and I’m cut because I work out all the time and eat right. I am at a loss for what to do with her so i get why that lady asked that before and at least need to give you the perspective of another person coming from that side of things..

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      2. Thank you so much for sharing this Marisa. It sounds like you work hard to keep yourself and your family as healthy as you can, and I totally respect that! I also know it is not about looks or body size, and many parents like you are mostly worried about future health problems. What I can share (and research supports) is that over time children tend to pick up on your habits and lifestyle (so your active, healthy eating lifestyle is a great role model). Also, and this is really important, when they are restricted or even pick up on vibes they should not eat a second helping, etc. it actually makes them more obsessed with food resulting in overeating. That is why I always stress the importance of never putting a child on a restrictive diet…even worse than making them eat more, they are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder which I have seen, unfortunately many times (resulting in devastating affects on health, growth and repercussions for the entire family). I often recommend Ellyn Satter’s book “Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming” which may offer some guidance and help prevent these problems. I also might suggest privately consulting with your child’s pediatrician regarding your concerns, and if lab would be helpful, if you worry something may be going on metabolically. There are certain conditions, such as hyperinsulinemia that can contribute to abnormal weight gain. With that said, I can tell you from years working with families where one child is thin and the other is larger sized (due to genetics, some are short, some are tall, etc). Parents I have seen tend to focus on the larger one (due to worries, I do get it) and unfortunately this backfires causing more (unnatural) weight gain. It is not easy! So I always have recommended focusing on “health” for the entire family, never singling anyone out for what or how much they are eating, etc. Making rules about where to eat, when meal and snack times are, and getting kids involved in creating menus, cooking, etc. when possible. When they grow up (as I have seen with my own children, all very different physically, height, etc) is they tend to fall into a healthy aware lifestyle because that is what we parents have lived and demonstrated. Again, thank you for sharing, you are definitely not alone. Good luck!!! It is inspiring to hear about health-minded parents, so thank you : D

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  2. Susie

    Thank you! This article was exactly what I needed to read. My daughter does have a larger belly and is considered large for her age. I get comments about how much she eats even though she is eating very healthy food. She has a very large appetite but I focus on healthy eating, with a little wiggle room for treats. You have to enjoy life! I was a chubbier kid and still have some body image issues to work on because of how I was looked at in comparison to my skinny older brother and skinny younger sister. I hated my legs for always being big and having cellulite. As I learned to love them in my 30s and as I embraced them as they are it’s funny that they are actually starting to be stronger and more into the shape I always wanted them to be. If you saw me you would probably think I am insane for thinking these things in the first place. I am a very healthy, relatively fit mom of two girls. If you saw my pictures as a kid you would think I am even more insane. I wasn’t that big. I think I get your point in the sense that we need to focus on providing our children healthy habits as opposed to focusing on what they look like. Another great focus would be on what your body can do, loving it for its ability and making exercise a fun activity for them. Keep their minds clear of all the horrible mental habits that have been a part of far too many generations. Great message! Thank you so much!

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    1. thank you Susie so much for your comment, what a great mom you sound like to your daughters….everything you said totally makes sense. I don’t think you are insane at all (even without seeing your pictures) as body image concerns are truly almost impossible to escape. It is what you do about it that matters, and it sounds like your goals are admirable and in the right place. Thank you again for sharing, I learn so much from women like you : D

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