The study was the first to look at the patterns of body mass index (BMI) weight development in the first 10 years of a child’s life and to examine the lifestyle factors that appear to predict weight gain.
Being overweight or obese is linked to a child having poorer mental health, which can extend into adolescence and adulthood.
This poorer psychosocial well-being includes low self-esteem, unhappiness as well as risky behaviours such as cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption.
The results are based on data from children born into 19,244 families in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002. Data on weight and height was collected when the children were three, five, seven and 11.
Researchers were able to take account of many of the influences on the development of a child’s weight.
“It is well known that children of overweight or obese mothers are more likely to be overweight themselves, probably reflecting the ‘obesogenic’ environment and perhaps a genetic predisposition to gain weight,” said Professor Yvonne Kelly from UCL.
“This study shows that disrupted routines exemplified by irregular sleeping patterns and skipping breakfast, could influence weight gain through increased appetite and the consumption of energy-dense foods,” said Kelly.
“These findings support the need for intervention strategies aimed at multiple spheres of influence on BMI growth,” said Kelly.
Smoking in pregnancy has been linked to a higher risk of a child being overweight, possibly due to a link between foetal tobacco exposure and infant motor co-ordination which could be a developmental pathway to BMI growth.
The study identified four patterns of weight development. Majority of children (83.3 per cent) had stable non-overweight BMI, while 13.1 per cent had moderate increasing BMIs. About 2.5 per cent had steeply increasing BMIs.
The smallest group – 0.6 per cent – had BMIs in the obese range at the age of three but were similar to the stable group by the age of seven.