A study published online in the February 6 issue of Pediatrics reveals that programs that help parents during the early years of their child’s life may help prevent childhood obesity.

At present, 1 out of 5 children in the U.S. is classified as obese. Compared to children of normal weight, overweight children are five times more likely to be obese by the time they reach their teenage years. Furthermore, obese children and adolescents, especially low-income and minority youth, are at greater risk for a variety of social, academic and medical problems.

In order to find out whether early family intervention, which was effective for parents with children of behavior problems, helped to lower obesity rates, Laurie Miller Brotman, PhD, professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Director of the Center for Early Childhood Health and Development at the NYU Child Study Center, and team conducted a study that involved 186 children from low-income, minority families at high risk for obesity.

The team took advantage of two long-term follow-up investigations of high-risk children who had taken part in assessments of either ParentCorps, a culturally-informed family program for young children, or the “Incredible Years,” another effective parenting program, during early childhood.

When the children were around four years of age, they were randomly assigned to family intervention or a control group. Each week, children assigned to the behavioral family intervention group went to a 2-hour parent and child group over a 6-month period. Weight, nutrition, and activity were not addressed in the interventions.

Dr. Brotman explained:

“Children who enter school with behavior problems are at very high risk for academic underachievement and school dropout, antisocial behavior, delinquency, obesity and other health problems. ParentCorps engages parents of high-risk children, reduces harsh and ineffective parenting and prevents early behavior problems from escalating into more serious and intractable problems.”

Dr. Brotman and her team have created and assessed programs for parents and young children living in urban poverty for more than 10 years.

ParentCorps helps parents to be more effective in their approach to discipline, and be more nurturing and responsive. Parents who participate in ParentCorps praise positive behaviors, such as sharing with peers, are more attentive and attuned to their children, and spend more time reading as well as playing with their children. Furthermore, parents use more effective strategies for punishment, such as time out, instead of physical punishment. ParentCorps is especially helpful for parents of children with behavioral problems, and has benefits for socioeconomically and ethnically diverse families.

In both follow-up studies, children in the control group and those in the intervention group were assessed between 3 to 5 years later. As the children approached adolescence, body mass index, physical activity and sedentary activity were included in the examination. One of the studies also measured nutritional intake and blood pressure.

The researchers found that rates of obesity were considerably lower among children who received family intervention during early childhood, than children in the control group.

Furthermore, they found that half of the children in the control group with early behavior problems were obese by second grade, while only 24% of children with behavior problems who received ParentCorps in early childhood were obese.

The researchers also found positive effects on physical activity and sedentary behavior. The study that analyzed nutritional intake and blood pressure revealed relatively lower intake of carbohydrates and lower rates of blood pressure in teenagers who received family intervention during early childhood.

According to the researchers family intervention programs, such as ParentCorps, that prevent behavior problems at a young age and promote effective parenting, may help to lower the obesity rate among low-income, minority youth.

Written by Grace Rattue