Moms, especially those who are obese, are more likely to use TV to entertain and soothe infants who are more fussy and active, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The finding adds to the growing body of knowledge that may help explain the escalating rate of obesity and inactivity in U.S. children, and has led to behavioral and educational strategies that may help mothers combat these effects.
The study, led by nutritionist Margaret E. Bentley, is the first to examine the interplay of maternal and infant risk factors that lead to TV watching in infants. The research appears in the Jan. 7 issue of the journal Pediatrics.
“In the past, studies have focused on maternal factors for obesity and TV watching, but this is the first time anyone has looked at infant factors and the interaction between maternal and infant characteristics in shaping TV behavior across infancy,” said Amanda L. Thompson, a biological anthropologist in the College of Arts and Sciences and first author of the study. “And that’s important,” she added, “because mom and infant behaviors are inextricably linked.”
Bentley’s team looked at 217 first-time, low-income black mothers and babies from central North Carolina who were part of a five-year study looking at obesity risk in infants. The researchers followed the mothers and babies in their homes at 3, 6, 9 12 and 18 months of age, looking at TV exposure, sociodemographic and infant temperament data. They asked how often the TV was on, if a TV was in the baby’s bedroom, and whether the TV was on during meal times. Researchers also interviewed the mothers about how they perceived their children’s mood, activity levels and fussiness.
The researchers found that mothers who were obese, who watched a lot of TV and whose child was fussy were most likely to put their infants in front of the TV. By 12 months, nearly 40 percent of the infants were exposed to more than 3 hours of TV daily – a third of their waking hours. Households where infants were perceived as active and whose mothers did not have a high school diploma were more likely to feed their infants in front of the TV.
“Feeding infants in front of the TV can limit a mom’s responsiveness in terms of examining infant cues, such as when an infant is telling mom he is no longer hungry,” said Bentley, principal investigator and a professor of nutrition in UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “This work has helped us design intervention strategies that will help teach moms how to soothe their babies, without overfeeding them or putting them in front of a TV.”
The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.
In collaboration with several UNC researchers, Bentley will lead a newly funded study from the NIH to develop home-based parenting strategies for infants to achieve healthy growth and development.
Bentley, Thompson, and co-author Linda S. Adair are fellows of the Carolina Population Center.