Babies May Be Getting Bigger, but Questions Remain

The weights and lengths of babies born in southwestern Ohio have been growing in recent decades, a new study found, but no link to obesity later in childhood was seen.

The new research, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, used data going back to 1929 to track babies' sizes at birth and beyond, and found that those born after 1970 were about one pound heavier and over half an inch longer than babies born in earlier decades.

"What would have been considered a big kid in the 1930s would not have been considered a big kid today," said Ellen Demerath, one of the study's authors and an associate professor in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health's Division of Epidemiology and Community Health.

But by age one, most babies were about the same size as counterparts in previous generations, suggesting that babies born smaller in the past experienced faster catch-up growth in their first year of life to arrive at similar average weights as the modern infants.

The average size of mothers, however, has definitely risen in recent decades, as gauged by body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight relative to height. Between 1930 and 1949, 18 percent of mothers in the study had BMI's that qualified as "obese," while 48 percent fell into that category between 1990 and 2008.

Some researchers have speculated that higher maternal BMIs are leading to bigger babies, which in turn may contribute to obesity later in childhood.

To test those ideas, Demerath and her fellow researchers used data from a long-term study in Ohio of babies born since 1929 and their mothers. The 620 babies they followed were weighed and measured from birth to age three, and all were of European ancestry.

"These are your middle-class, white, semi-urban, suburban dwellers that have been tracked," said Demerath. "And there have been huge changes in infant growth."

The difference in growth rates after birth between babies in earlier and later generations, Demerath says, is likely due to mothers' health during pregnancy.

In the pre-1970 period, "birth weight is relatively low and maternal health was probably not as good as it is now," said Demerath.

The researchers suggest that the high number of babies fed with formula may also help explain the slowing growth rate during the first year of life in more recent generations, but that could not be tested with the information they had.

Demerath said more than anything, the slowing growth rate challenges those who believe big babies are to blame for the current obesity epidemic.

"You don't need a high infant weight gain to end up with an obesity problem," Demerath told Reuters Health.

Dr. Emily Oken, associate professor in the Department of Population Medicine at Harvard Medical School, cautions that it's hard to predict a person's overall growth at an early age.

"I think that in the two- to five-year-old age range it's very hard to tease out what the long term prospects for body size and health risks are," said Oken.

Oken added that some kids see an uptick in weight after age four and five.

In a 2010 study based on data for more than 36 million babies across the U.S., Oken and her fellow researchers found babies born in 2005 were smaller than those born in 1990. Her group could not explain the trend by characteristics of the mothers or babies, or by changes in pregnancy lengths.

Oken said her results may not contradict the findings in Ohio, however, because her study is based only on more recent data and represents a national population. She also noted that in general, babies around the world have been getting bigger since the 1950s.

According to Demerath, the take-home message is that maternal health is really in a different situation than it was decades ago. But, she and her colleagues conclude, growth rates in the first year of life cannot explain trends toward obesity later on.