Is My Child’s Weight Gain Normal? Tips To Keep Kids on Track With Healthy HabitsPublished: Sept. 1, 2023
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and guardians were working hard to help their children achieve a healthy balance when it came to diet and exercise. Then came the challenges of a pandemic.
Quarantine efforts disrupted just about everyone’s daily routine, and most kids had to navigate a world with remote schooling and decreased in-person activities like organized sports or outdoor play with friends. Meanwhile, their screen time may have increased, and their eating habits may have changed.
Even as our lives move closer to what was normal before the pandemic, some new habits have been hard to break. The result has been an increase in unhealthy weight gain, and in some cases obesity, among children.
Causes of Unhealthy Weight Gain in Children
Obesity and unhealthy weight gain in children can be caused by numerous factors, including:
- Physical activity
- Sleep habits
- Underlying medical conditions, such as thyroid or hormonal problems
Is My Child’s Weight Gain Normal?
Pediatricians often calculate a child’s body mass index (BMI) to help determine if they are overweight, but this can be misleading. BMI gives us a snapshot of someone’s weight in relation to their height, but it doesn’t factor in their build. It’s also only one tool, and a child’s overall health, diet, exercise and other habits should be taken into account.
It’s important to remember that every child is different, and the ways their bodies store and use energy can vary greatly. But as a general rule, normal weight gain is:
- About 5 pounds per year between ages 2 and 5
- About 5-10 pounds per year for school-age children
More significant weight gain is normal during the preadolescent ages of roughly 9 to 12 and adolescence – as a child matures into a young adult. It’s not unusual for the body to store fat during this time as it prepares for the rapid growth and changes associated with puberty.
So what’s normal and healthy, and what’s not? You know your kids best. And all parents regularly question countless things when it comes to their children: Am I reading to them enough? Was that punishment too harsh – or not harsh enough? Is that just a runny nose or something more?
Trust your instincts. If you’re worried about their weight or development, reach out to your pediatrician or medical provider to discuss the situation.
Healthy Habits Take Root Early
Understanding if a child's weight gain is healthy or unhealthy is about more than just numbers.
Childhood is an important time to learn lifelong healthy eating and exercise habits. That includes the teen years. While an adolescent’s body often appears to “even out” during puberty, it’s still a crucial time for a young person to develop healthy habits that they will carry into adulthood.
Poor habits for kids now can lead to obesity, which increases the risk for serious conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, cancer and heart disease. That’s why it’s so important that parents are role models for habits including:
Diet. Positive and healthy relationships with food develop early in life and are often strongly influenced by their caregivers. Focus on having regular meals and snack times, eating together as a family without distractions, and not pressuring, rewarding or punishing children when it comes to eating.
Exercise. Even if your kids aren’t involved in activities and sports, there are plenty of ways to help them be active. Fortunately, there are many free online exercise programs targeting children and families alike. And there are the old-fashioned favorites like family walks, bike rides and games of catch. Don’t worry about having the perfect activity planned; just get up and get moving with your kids.
Sometimes we just need a fresh start. If your child or the whole family have developed poor habits over the past three years, try addressing them in a slow and reasonable fashion.
Take cookies, for example. I would never tell a family to stop buying cookies. Food restrictions like that are unreasonable and unhealthy. But if you know your family is eating too many cookies, work to gradually limit how many you buy and eat. Take turns choosing what kind of cookies to buy, then enjoy them together at mealtime without making them a reward. The same goes for exercise: You’re not training for the Olympics. Work on gradually incorporating activities your children enjoy so exercise is more like play than work.
Find the Right Balance With the 5-4-3-2-1 Rule
OK, so we all know how important healthy habits are. The trick is establishing and sticking with them. Try following the easy-to-remember 5-4-3-2-1 rule, which advocates that each day children have:
- Five servings of fruits and vegetables
- Four glasses of water
- Three servings of low-fat dairy products or comparable plant-based milk
- Two hours or less of screen time
- One hour or more of exercise
I know what you’re thinking, and I get it. Yes, there will be those rainy or busy days when an hour of exercise just isn’t happening, or rushed evenings when a frozen pizza will have to do for dinner. Don’t beat yourself up. These are guidelines to help your family develop healthy habits, not strict rules to add stress to your lives.
And a note on screen time: We’re all guilty – myself included – of allowing too much screen time as times. Again, work to gradually reduce it if it’s an issue. And if schoolwork involves screen time, have your children take a break after two hours regardless of if that time is for school or play.
Get Back on Track
The last few years have been challenging for all of us. But it’s not too late to get back on track. Do what you can today to set up your children for success, and don’t hesitate to reach out to a trusted medical provider if you need help or advice.