I got a letter in the mail the other day from my son’s pediatrician stating that she was closing her practice. My mind couldn’t help but flash to the time she called my baby fat. Yes, at the tender age of 4 months, my son was “fat.” According to his pediatrician. Born at 71⁄2 pounds, Levi was nursed on demand, round the clock, and swiftly gained weight. My Jewish mother instincts kicked in, and I joyously watched his wrists, ankles and thighs get enveloped by adorable fat rolls.
At his 2-month appointment he weighed 12 pounds. By 4 months he had ballooned to 161⁄2. That’s when his doctor got on my case.
“He’s overweight,” she told me, even though he was at most in the 75th percentile on those dubious weight charts. “You are overfeeding him. You need to stop feeding him on demand. If he’s crying, give him water.”
“But I thought breast-fed babies couldn’t be overfed,” I said plaintively.
“That’s not true at all,” she said with annoyance in her voice, as though she dealt with uninformed mothers like me every day. “I did it with my kids, so I know.”
I was devastated. Sure, Levi was a little chunkier than his peers, but wasn’t baby fat normal, especially in pre-crawlers? He was very active, kicking and wiggling all day long. Then again, he was nursing every two hours. Shouldn’t he be going at least three hours between feedings?
I sought out a second opinion, which wasn’t hard to find. First there was my sister-in-law, a doctor and mother herself, who told me, in somewhat more polite terms, that the pediatrician was wack. Then there were the lactation consultants at my nursing support group, who gave me endless reassurances that my baby was perfectly normal.
But what Levi’s doctor had said still weighed on my mind. Unconsciously, I was now accounting for everything Levi ate. For example, when he started eating solid foods, I knew I should get him whole-milk plain yogurt — but should I get the brand with 7 grams of fat per serving, or the brand with 5 grams? Fat is critical to babies’ brain development — but what if I was setting him up for an early heart attack?
I have the pedigree to be a Jewish mother perpetually telling her child they’re “wasting away” and feeding them pastries. But I also have the fear of turning him into a statistic, yet another tick in the tally of America’s obese.
I didn’t grow up with a mother who tried to overfeed me, but I’m definitely aware of the phenomenon. As a teenager I used to go over to my friend Alina’s house, where her tiny grandmother would gently admonish me in Russian for being “too skinny” — then ply me with kasha varnishkes and Neapolitan ice cream. I happily obliged.
In today’s world, though, that kind of “for God’s sake, eat something!” attitude can come at a price.
The CDC reported in August that approximately 72.5 million adults in the U.S. were obese. In 2009, nine states had at least a 30 percent obesity rate among adults — a statistical category that didn’t even exist at the start of the decade.
The problem is that all this anti-obesity frenzy is causing unhealthy relationships with food. Parents are starting their children on diets even as infants — “Saturday Night Live” spoofed this with their faux commercial for “Baby Spanx,” a super-elastic spandex suit to “smooth out” pudgy babies. It was funny, but mainly because it was scarily close to the truth.
I can already tell that this is something I’m going to struggle with as a mother — my biological and ethnic imperative to stuff my kid to the gills, Eastern European–style, vs. the dreaded specter of obesity. And the difficult balance between the two.
Now that Levi is crawling, his weight gain has slowed down and his arms and legs have thinned a bit. I’m proud to have a sweet, huggable baby, and I’m working on not obsessing about fat grams and overeating.
And, yes, I can even laugh over the “SNL” pitch line for the “Baby Spanx”: “From flab to fab — now that’s a tight baby!”
Rachel Leibold is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.