There is limited research investigating whether maternal behaviors exhibited during non-feeding contexts play a role in the development of obesity, and whether this association varies based on children’s emerging regulatory skills. The objective of this study was to investigate interactions between maternal behaviors and toddler regulation predicting child BMI z-scores (BMIZ) at 4.5 years.
Infant–mother dyads (n = 108) participated in laboratory visits when the child was 18 months and 4.5 years of age. Maternal interactive behaviors (i.e., positive responsiveness, gentle control) were coded from recordings of free play and clean-up tasks with their toddlers. Toddler regulation was assessed via an observational task, experimenter ratings, and parent ratings. Child and mother length/height and weight measurements were recorded and used to calculate child BMIZ and maternal BMI, respectively.
After controlling for covariates, two significant interactions emerged between maternal behaviors and toddler regulation predicting BMIZ at 4.5 years. First, an interaction of positive responsiveness during free play and toddler regulation demonstrated that greater positive responsiveness significantly related to lower child BMIZ for toddlers with poor regulation. Second, an interaction of gentle control during clean-up and toddler regulation indicated that greater gentle control was associated with lower BMIZ for toddlers with lesser regulatory abilities, but higher BMIZ for well-regulated toddlers. No significant main effects emerged for maternal interactive behaviors or toddler regulation.
These results suggest that associations between maternal behaviors and child BMIZ may depend on toddlers’ emerging regulatory abilities. Maternal responsiveness during free play and gentle control during clean-up appear to protect against weight gain, especially for toddlers with lower regulatory abilities. However, greater levels of gentle control may have adverse effects on BMIZ for well-regulated toddlers. These results suggest that both parenting and toddler regulation, examined outside feeding contexts, may have important implications for child obesity.
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This study was supported by a grant from the NIDDK (DK081512) awarded to the third author. This work was also supported in part by a postdoctoral fellowship provided to the second author by the NICHD (T32-HD07376) through the Center for Developmental Science at UNC-Chapel Hill. The authors would like to thank the families who participated in the study.