NEW YORK - Mothers who push their toddlers to eat more at snack time may end up with a heavier child, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that when moms were overly "intrusive" during their young children's snack time, their kids tended to be a bit chubbier by the age of 3.
It's not clear whether parents' pushiness actually leads to excess weight gain in their preschoolers. And the weight differences seen in this study were small.
Still, experts already suggest that parents take a more relaxed approach to young kids' meals. That is, give them healthy food choices, but back off when it comes to how much they eat.
Toddlers are famously finicky eaters. And parents often worry their child might not be eating enough, Dr. Julie C. Lumeng, lead researcher on the new study, said in an interview.
"So their toddler doesn't want to eat, but parents are saying, 'Come on, honey. Eat, eat, eat!'" said Lumeng, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
It's thought, she explained, that parents may end up "overriding" their little one's ability to listen to the body's natural "satiety signals" -- the brain's way of telling you to stop eating.
A number of studies have pointed to links between parents' "controlling" behavior at meal time and their children's risk of being overweight. But one problem with those studies is that they relied on questionnaires that essentially ask parents if they're pushy at the dinner table.
"With this study, we said let's actually observe what mothers are doing," Lumeng said.
To do that, the researchers had 1,218 moms come to the research lab, then videotaped them during a 10-minute snack with their child. Families came three different times - when the child was 15 months, 2 years and 3 years old.
Overall, moms who were most "intrusive" during the snacks tended to have heavier kids - even when factors like family income and race were taken into account.
Lower-income and minority children generally have a higher risk of obesity than white, middle-class kids and studies have found that their moms also tend to be more controlling at meal time, the authors note in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
"Intrusive" in this study meant pushing toddlers to eat rather than offering food, Lumeng explained - saying, for example, "You know you like it. Take another bite."
The association between pushiness and kids' weight was a small one, Lumeng said.
If, for example, all of a mother's snack time "prompts" were of the assertive variety, her child would move up slightly on the body mass index (BMI) scale -- akin to moving from the 50th percentile to the 57th, Lumeng explained.
And the study has its limits. Videotaping moms has advantages over questionnaires. But it was also done in the research lab, and does not necessarily reflect what's happening at home, Lumeng said.
So she and her colleagues are starting a study where they will have low-income families videotape typical meals at home, to see whether parent-child interactions are related to kids' weight.
For now, Lumeng suggested that parents follow experts' current thinking: Give your young children healthy food, but allow them to control how much they eat at a time.
"Children will naturally eat the proper amount," she said.
If you're worried that your toddler is not getting enough food, Lumeng said, talk to your pediatrician.
"Often," she noted, "the kids parents are worried about are actually a very healthy weight."