Just like adults, babies come in all different shapes and sizes. It takes big babies and small babies to make an ‘average’ sized baby. There are many factors that influence a baby’s size such as genetics, what they are exposed to in utero, how they are fed etc. Many parents worry if their baby is too big or too small. This is hardly surprising since it’s common for parents to encounter comments about their baby’s size such as: “Gee, he’s a big chubba!” or “Gosh, she’s small, are you sure you have enough milk for her?” So, are big babies healthy or unhealthy? Here are 6 things you should know about big babies:
#1: The In Utero Environment Influences Birth Weight
Risk factors for giving birth to a baby who is large for gestational age include:
- Gestational diabetes
- Type II diabetes Mother being overweight or obese
- Excessive maternal weight gain
This is because many of the above increase maternal blood sugar levels as well as insulin levels, and this increases foetal growth. Long term, babies born large for gestational age have an increased risk various poorer health outcomes such as diabetes, obesity etc. The good news is that breastfeeding can help reverse these risks.
#2: Breastfeeding Can Offset Obesity Risk Associated With Gestational Diabetes
Babies exposed to over-nutrition in utero (e.g. due to maternal diabetes during pregnancy) increases the risk of excessive foetal growth and obesity in childhood and later in life. Also, gestational diabetes in pregnancy increases a mother’s risk of developing type II diabetes later in life. Breastfeeding can offset these risks for both a mother and her baby.
#3: Breastfeeding Helps Ensure Your Baby Gets What Your Baby Needs
When a baby is fed directly from the breast, a baby is in control of how much she drinks. She can suck in a way where she gets the milk (nutritive sucking), she can suck in a way where she doesn’t get the milk (non-nutritive sucking), she can be at the breast and rest and she can just come off.
For these reasons, breastfeeding a baby according to need (i.e. when showing feeding cues) helps ensure she gets exactly the amount of breastmilk she needs to grow in the way she is biologically meant to. Hence, no matter how much weight a breastfed baby gains, she cannot be said to be overweight.
#4: Babies Who Are Not Breastfed Have An Increased Risk Of Being Overweight And Obesity
When a baby feeds from a bottle, she cannot control her intake as well because:
- She cannot suck in a non-nutritive way on a bottle
- The flow is more consistently faster from a bottle
- When a firm bottle teat placed inside a young baby’s mouth provides a strong stimulus for her to suck and when she sucks she gets milk whether she needs the milk or not
- A parent (or formula tin) derived amount is given
- Babies can be encouraged to finish all the milk in the bottle even if they don’t need it
Hence it’s impossible to be sure if a bottle-fed baby is getting exactly the amount she needs and possible for a bottle-fed baby (particularly if formula-fed) to gain too much weight.
Formula feeding is associated with increased risk of overweight and obesity. Apart from the points listed above, some other reasons why this might be so include:
- Formula does not contain leptin, a hormone which helps regulate food intake
- Formula has a higher protein content than breastmilk. This may contribute to more rapid growth
#5: There Are Ways To Help Bottle-fed Babies Get As Close As Possible To The Amount They Need
Even though there will always be a degree of guesswork involved with amounts given to a bottle-fed baby, the following tips can help your bottle-fed baby get as close as possible to the amount they need:
- The World Health Organization growth charts can provide a helpful guide in terms of rates of growth since they are based on a breastfed population. You can read more here about baby weight gains
- Feeding your bottle-fed baby according to her own individual need. You can read here about this
- Using specific bottle feeding methods (e.g. paced bottle feeding). You can read about these here.
- Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council recommends formula fed babies be fed with a formula with a lower protein content
#6: You Are What You Eat
When it’s time to introduce your baby to solid foods (around 6 months), offering a range of healthy solid food is important. Eating well reduces the risk of overweight and obesity.
You can help establish healthy eating habits from an early age in your child by:
- Being a good role model by eating well yourself
- Regular meal times together as a family
- Offering a range of nutrient dense foods such as lean meats, poultry, fish or vegetarian alternatives, fruits and vegetables, dairy products (full fat, especially for children under two), good fats (e.g. avocado, egg) and whole grain foods (e.g. rolled oats, brown or basmati rice)
- Avoiding or at least limiting nutrient poor foods such as biscuits, cakes, fruit juices, soft drinks and white bread.