Will your baby be fat?

March 12, 2010 8:10:20 AM PST
Newer research finds babies who gain weight too quickly in the first months of life are at a increased risk of becoming heavy toddlers. But some doctors say weight gain alone may not tell the whole story. How much fat a baby has right at birth may be another sign of future problems. Getting an accurate measurement has been tricky to do - until now.

A pod-like device may look like it's about to blast off into outer space with a pint sized passenger. In reality, it's not going anywhere but doctors say the system called the "pea pod" is delivering some information that may seem out of this world. It's a new, non invasive and more precise way to measure newborn body fat using air displacement.

Less than 24 hours old, Elena Grace Aranda is having her body volume measured in the name of science.

"To know that she is part of something that in the future that we can gain knowledge from, I think that's great," said Pablo Aranda, new father.

Dr. Jami Josefson, a pediatric endocrinologist at Children's Memorial Hospital, has a hunch. She suspects increased amounts of body fat at birth may play a significant role in future weight problems. So she has started a pilot study.

"Perhaps baby fat is a more sensitive and specific marker of a risk for childhood obesity than birth weight alone," said Dr. Josefson.

Along with the infant's body fat, Dr. Josefson will also look at glucose and insulin levels in the blood and hormones including leptin, an appetite regulator. Mom's pregnancy weight will also be considered.

"Perhaps there are interventions. Perhaps if moms who are overweight during pregnancy if they gain much less weight during pregnancy than is currently recommended that could have an effect on baby's body fat," said Dr. Josefson.

Everyone needs some fat to survive especially babies. According to the National Institutes of Health, obesity means having too much body fat. It's different from being overweight but both terms mean a person weighs more than what's considered healthy.

Dr. Ari Levy, a specialist in personal health at the University of Chicago Hospitals, says adults who learn their body fat make up can use the number to customize exercise and diet plans. He worries infants with high body fat may just be unfairly pigeonholed as a weight risk only to become a self fulfilling prophecy.

"What you don't want to do is form a child image, a negative self image of themselves because of body fat. I'd much rather understand the child right, what their setting is what is going on what their nutrition is like are they physically activity," said Dr. Levy.

Dr. Josefson agrees baby fat is just a small part of the bigger picture. And researchers are still trying to even figure out what levels of fat in infants are normal or not. This newer technology could help.

Henry Facer's parents are hoping to stick with the research for years to come.

"It'll be interesting to see what comes of the study," said Chelli Facer, new mother.

The babies are only in the "pea pod" for a couple minutes and, for the most part, they just lay there. Most are quite comfortable.

Pregnant women delivering at Prentice Women's Hospital at Northwestern and their babies are being recruited for the project.

Jami Josefson, MD
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Children's Memorial Hospital
Division of Endocrinology
Study to Identify Infants at High Risk for Developing Obesity:
Metabolic Programming and Effects of Maternal Obesity on Neonatal Body Composition