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7 Ways to Prevent Obesity

Living Lean Take her outside—and more tips to stop weight problems before they start, by William Sears, M.D., a contributing editor and the author of more than 40 childcare books

The first years of your child's life instill habits that can last a lifetime. That's why it's so important to teach ways to "live lean" during this impressionable stage. Babies are naturally plump, of course—that adorable, pinchable layer of fat insulates your little one's body from the elements and provides fuel for the "play first, eat later" toddler years. Most babies lose their chubbiness when they start to crawl and walk, but here are some guidelines to make sure your tot keeps the baby fat at bay—for life.

Of course, the very best thing you can do to help your child maintain a healthy weight is to set a good example. If you're passionate about eating right and staying fit, your child will emulate your good habits. Remember, you have more influence over him in these first years of life than at any other time, so take advantage of this opportunity to give him the tools for a healthy lifestyle.

1. Breastfeed for as Long as Possible

Breastfed babies not only "lean out" sooner, they're also less likely to become obese later in childhood. What's more, the longer a baby breastfeeds, the better her chances of growing up at a healthy weight. That's because breastfeeding teaches her not to overeat. When she feels full, she naturally slows down or stops nursing. This helps her identify her hunger signals and regulate the amount she eats at each meal, a habit she's likely to carry into childhood.

Breastfeeding also keeps your baby from equating food with comfort. After he fills up on breast milk, he may continue to suckle, but in a slow way that gives very little milk. As a result, he learns to associate the good feelings that come from sucking with the warm sensation of being held in your arms, not with having a too-full tummy.

2. Learn to Read Your Baby When Feeding Him Formula

Without baby-to-breast contact, bottle-feeding may be less intuitive than breastfeeding, but you still can help your child develop healthy eating habits by following his feeding cues. Offer formula when he's hungry, not according to a schedule—a young baby's tummy is about the same size as his 
fist, which means he'll do better with smaller, more frequent feedings. By the same token, let him decide when he's full. There's no need for him to finish the last ounce or half-ounce in the bottle if he's not interested. If he's simply crying for comfort, use music, massage or rocking instead of a bottle to soothe him.

Follow this pattern once she starts eating solids too—just because she's eating table foods doesn't mean she needs to clean her plate. Smaller, more frequent meals are perfectly fine for your growing baby. Allowing a child to stop eating when her hunger is satisfied teaches her to trust her eating cues, helping to prevent overeating from becoming a habit.