Family Violence Linked to Child Obesity

Children whose mothers said they were chronically abused by their partners were more likely to be obese by age 5 than similar children whose mothers did not report such steady family violence, Boston researchers report.


Dr. Renee Boynton-Jarrett of the Boston University School of Medicine led a study of almost 1,600 children enrolled in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. The study, which follows almost 5,000 children born from 1998 through 2000 in 20 large cities, tracks families considered to be at greater risk of break-up and poverty than traditional families. Most of the children were born to unmarried parents.


Children in the smaller group studied by the Boston researchers had their weight and height measured during home visits when they were 3 and 5 years old. Their mothers were interviewed at those times, as well as in the hospital shortly after giving birth and when the child was 1 year old.


Half of the mothers said their baby's father or another partner abused them physically, sexually, or psychologically. Examples included suffering cuts and bruises, being forced to perform sexual acts, or being isolated from friends, family, and work by a partner's controlling behavior. That level of abuse compares to 1 in 4 American women reporting abuse over their lifetimes, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in an interview, Boynton-Jarrett said the difference is not surprising, given that government figures show that lower-income women are at higher risk of domestic violence than women who earn more.


In the new study, which appears in tomorrow's Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 16.5 percent of the children were obese at age 5, meaning their body mass index was higher than 95 percent of children their age in the general population. Children whose mothers reported intimate partner violence each time they were interviewed were 80 percent more likely to be obese than children whose mothers never said they were abused. Children whose mothers reported ever being abused and who also lived in an unsafe neighborhood were 56 percent more likely to be obese than children whose mothers said they lived in an unsafe neighborhood but were never abused. Perceptions of neighborhood safety are important because children have fewer opportunities for physical activity if their parents fear for their safety outside the home.


Because many other factors can also contribute to obesity, the researchers tried to account for such factors as the mother's weight, smoking during pregnancy, and depression as well as the child's television viewing and bottle versus breast feeding. When all those factors were equal, children exposed to abuse of their mothers were still more likely to be obese.


The authors hypothesize that intimate partner violence may change the way mothers care for their children, including how they feed them. The stress of living with family violence also may disrupt hormones involved in the way children eat and store fat, the authors suggest, citing previous research.


The observational study can't show that partner violence causes obesity, but the researchers urge doctors and public health specialists to be aware of domestic violence and neighborhood safety when thinking about ways to prevent childhood obesity.


"What it really means is broadening our focus to really consider psychosocial risk factors that may influence behavioral coping strategies that elevate the risk of early obesity," said Boynton-Jarret, who is also a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center. "Nutrition and physical activity are extremely important but family violence might be one of the factors that predict nutritional content and the level of activity."


(To read original article, visit this Boston Globe link.)

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