The Surprising Link Between Your Baby's 'Cuddliness' and Obesity Risk

If your child is particualrly cuddly—or particularly averse to snuggling—you'll want to read this.

Does it seem like a snuggle from you can calm your baby down right away? If so, you might be able to learn a bit about his or her chances of becoming obese. According to a recent study published in Childhood Obesity, there's a surprising relationship between an infant's disposition and his or her obesity risk.

According to the study, babies who get upset easily and take some time to calm down are at greater risk for obesity. On the flipside, babies who respond well to physical contact and calm down quickly may be less likely to become obese. 

The study authors observed 105 infants aged nine to 18 months—the infants were instructed to push a button in order to earn rewards. Sometimes the rewards were food items; other times they were given non-food rewards. Their parents were involved as well: They were asked to repeat specific phrases while the infants pushed the button. Researchers made it increasingly difficult for the children to earn rewards as the experiment went on by asking them to press the button multiple times, and took note of how much effort the infants were willing to exert. Parents also answered detailed questionnaires about the infants' behaviors.

Researchers looked at this topic in order to identify some indicators that a child may become overweight or obese—parents and healthcare providers may be able to use this information to avert the issue. 

“The research tells us that differences in behavior begin as early as infancy and those differences can influence health behaviors that impact future health risks,” the study's first author, Kai Ling Kong, Ph.D., said, according to a news release on the study.

The researchers asked parents specific questions along the lines of "When being held, how often did your baby pull away or kick?" and "While being fed on your lap, how often did your baby snuggle even after they were done?"

Here's where the connection between cuddliness and obesity came into play: Infants who were likely to calm down when cuddled were less inclined to work hard for food rewards—they seemed more motivated by the non-food incentives researchers offered. Infants who were not as receptive to snuggling were more willing to work hard for the food rewards.

Dr. Kong, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, explained the study's findings. "We found that infants that rated higher on what we call 'cuddliness'—the baby’s expression of enjoyment and molding of the body to being held—had lower food reinforcement,” Dr. Kong said. “That means they were willing to work more for a non-food reward versus a food reward. So an infant who enjoyed being held closely by a caregiver was less motivated to work for food.”

Does all this mean babies who don't respond well to cuddling will automatically become obese? No. After all, the point of this research was to identify risk factors that could make early intervention a bit easier. Here's what we suggest: Have a conversation with your doctor if your baby seems abnormally fussy. And while there's no real way to know whether or not this study proves cause-and-effect, it's always a good idea to encourage your kids to eat healthy foods and stay within a healthy weight range.

“If a parent sees high relative food reinforcement in their child, it is not cause for immediate concern,” Dr. Kong said. “Using rewards other than food, such as a trip to the playground or engaging in active play with their parents, may help reduce the child’s tendency to find pleasure in food."

Dr. Kong also pointed out that sometimes changing a child's behavior is just a matter of setting a good example. Eat well and exercise often to keep yourself healthy—and avoid the temptation to offer food rewards every time your child becomes fussy.