The Biggest Baby

By Natalia Cortes-Chaffin

On her second birthday my daughter Leah pushed her chocolate chip cupcake towards me: “Eat it,” she said. It was about the fifth piece of cake she’d been served in her life. Yet despite her love of chocolate and frosting and all varieties of sprinkles, and despite how infrequently I let her indulge, she wanted to share the cupcake with me. She wanted to share it with her feet, too, but mostly she wanted to share it with me. I recorded our little exchange on my phone. I replay the video sometimes when I need to sugar up my day.

Leah is almost three now and, according to the weight guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control, she is obese. The CDC designates as obese any child age two to fourteen with a Body Mass Index measurement that falls within the 95th to 100th percentile. BMI represents how much of weight comes from fat, as opposed to the more desirable muscle and bone. It’s determined by an intricate math formula that incorporates weight, height, age, and gender. Studies estimate that 19.6 percent of children ages six to eleven have BMIs that fall into the obese category, and this number is climbing rapidly.

Researchers have also found that a majority of obese children were obese as babies, before they had a single lick of ice cream. Findings like these, along with early obesity’s negative impact on future health, last year prompted a Colorado health insurance company to deny a 4-month-old coverage because he had reached the 95th percentile for his height and weight. The parents were blamed. I guess they were supposed to put their baby on a diet and set him on the infant equivalent of a treadmill.

I suspect this insurance company would point an accusing finger at me, too. My daughter Leah, with an average BMI of 98 percent, has been obese all her life. A typical two-year-old girl is about 33 inches tall and weighs approximately 26 pounds. When Leah turned two, she had reached 35 inches and weighed a whopping 35 pounds—just two pounds shy of her nearly five-year-old sister, whom she loves to topple to the ground while giggling. After the birth of our first two daughters, my husband had hoped Leah might be a football-playing boy. I used to joke that he’d gotten his linebacker.

Admittedly, Leah’s toddler proportions were shocking, the kind of future surprise I didn’t anticipate during pregnancy, when I was worrying about random genetic disorders. That surprise was even greater because Leah wasn’t a large newborn. At birth, she weighed a slightly above- average seven pounds and twelve ounces, just like her two sisters before her, just like many other bouncing babies with all their ten fingers and all their ten toes. She scored the neces- sary scores to be swaddled in a striped hospital blanket and earn a thumbs- up from our pediatrician. We took her home. Family and friends dropped by to slip pinky fingers into her palm and present her with tiny clothes. We never expected that she’d outgrow those new- born clothes within two weeks. At first, we thought nothing of her rapid weight- gain. Everybody loves a fat baby.

“Way to go, mom,” her pediatrician said to me, when we put her on the scale at one month. She’d gained almost four pounds, 50 percent of her body weight. Babies are supposed to get fat, not extremely fat, but plenty fat. They are programmed to eat and sleep and grow. By plumping her up, I was doing my motherly duty. Again her pediatrician pointed his thumb at the sky. Family and friends called to see how much she’d grown, how much she’d gained. They oohed and aahhed at the numbers.

I was told horrid stories of other babies, the ones who refused to eat, who wouldn’t gain weight, who were prodded with tubes and sliced open for intestinal surgery. I was lucky to have a healthy and hungry baby. I was lucky my body adjusted so easily to the role of dairy cow and produced a farm- worthy abundance of fatty milk. And it wasn’t just that I was lucky. The subtext in every “how’s your baby doing” conversation is always judgmental, always blaming or praising the mother for circumstances that may or may not be under her control. Leah was doing well and, yes, I had a hand in it; I was nursing her and changing her diapers and bathing those ten little fingers and ten little toes. The conclusion was automatic: I was a good mother, an exceptionally good mother at the rate Leah was expanding. I expected us to be put on a poster.

I reveled in the thought that this incredible growth was the first inkling that my baby was extraordinary. My husband and I soon discovered that Leah was indeed extraordinary, with an emphasis on extra: extra rolls around her arms, extra chunkiness around her thighs. Healthy babies double their weight in four months. Leah doubled hers in two. But this was the kind of growth that usually comes with green skin, torn clothing, and gamma radiation. At Leah’s two-month check-up, the plucky nurse with blue scrubs and an I Dream of Jeannie hairdo weighed her in at 14.2 pounds. Though she’d also grown three and a half inches, month two was when Leah stepped off the edge of the growth chart and waved bye-bye to the black dot that represented the 100th percentile for weight. We have yet to swim back to the shores of that growth chart, and I can’t remember the last time we saw land.

About this time, when Leah was two months old, the Discovery Health Channel broadcast a report about a seven-year-old boy who weighed 100 pounds. It was part of a show about rare diseases that aired while my husband was away on a business trip, which is usually when I indulge my obsession with rare diseases by watching the Discovery Health Channel. Leah, who was then four months old and shaped like a giant pumpkin, looked like that boy’s baby pictures. Tragic scenarios tumbled through my mind as I watched the program. I pictured strollers collapsing under her weight, kids pointing long fingers, parents steering their eyes towards normal children. I dreaded her wanting to fly like an airplane and me not able to help her soar. For the first time I understood my husband’s distaste for these shows. I feared Leah might have a genetic disorder like this boy did, some kind of disease that would have her ballooning like Violet Beauregard turned blueberry in Willy Wonka. I raced to the side of her bassinet, watched her sleep under a white cotton blanket. Her tummy rose. Her tummy sank. My love for her was like a primal ache.

“It’s brown fat,” the doctor said with a nonchalant air that mocked my maternal instincts and addiction to WebMD. He explained that some breastfed babies put on an enormous amount of weight. “She’ll slow down at nine months. You’ll see.” I Googled “brown fat.” According to various web sites, brown fat is a mutant form of fat whose cells produce heat and thus help newborns stay warm in the absence of actual cuddly fat. Without it, infants run the risk of dying. Eventually this kind of fat vanishes. It’s not the kind that leads to chronic debilitating issues.

This entry was written by Brain, Child

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  • Kate

    Strong and beautiful essay, Natalia. Just like your daughter. Thanks for sharing.

  • Shannon

    I have a “big-baby” too. Your article put a smile on my face, mainly because I am not alone in the “big” child department:) I think my child is perfect!

  • Rosie

    Very moving, strong and beautiful! Leah is a beautiful, warm and very loving little girl with a beautiful personality too!
    And you are Natalia, a terrific mother!

  • Rachel

    Thank you for this! It moved me to tears. My daughter is also above 95% for weight (height too). I was also told to put her on a diet at 18 months. I agree that as a nation we need to overhaul our relationship with food, but telling babies they are fat is the grossest mistake I have seen in this effort. When did it become okay to wage a war against toddlers who eat a healthy diet and have some extra rolls to kiss? Thank you again for sharing you experience, and for loving Leah for her sweet self.

  • Jenny

    Absolutely fantastic piece about something that wasn’t even on my radar before reading it — but will stick with me forever. Beautiful.

  • Shel

    I teared up reading your story. I have a big 9-year-old. I’m not obese nor is my husband or our adopted son or most of the people in our overly-health conscious town, but he is. Unlike Leah, he was underweight until he was 5, then within 18 months he became obese. For the past 3 years, I have tried everything to help him get down to a lower weight before the horrors of middle school. He is in a small, private school now, so the comments about his size are fairly mundane. They still hurt, though. He has a genetic defect that makes it difficult for his body to digest sugars and simple carbohydrates. I can’t tell you how many times people have given me the “you are ruining his childhood” look or remark because I limit his intake of sweets and pizza. It would almost be easier if he was diabetic, but of course, that is my worst fear. People say that he just needs more exercise, but his size makes it difficult for his joints to handle stress and being seen in a bathing suit is embarrassing.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing. It is lonely.

  • Alex

    Please know I do not mean this unkindly. You have concerns about your child, and you want to do the best you can for her. Having better information on the subject would put you in a better position to help her.

    You write: “The CDC designates as obese any child age two to fourteen with a Body Mass Index measurement that falls within the 95th to 100th percentile. BMI represents how much of weight comes from fat, as opposed to the more desirable muscle and bone. It’s determined by an intricate math formula that incorporates weight, height, age, and gender.”

    There is no such thing as the 100th percentile. If you are in the 95th percentile by weight, that means you weigh more than 95% of the group you’re in. Since you’re part of the group, you cannot be higher than 100% of the group.

    BMI does not represent how much of weight comes from fat. It’s your mass (in kilograms) divided by the square of your height (in meters).

    The formula for BMI does not incorporate your age or gender (see formula above). There are statistical tables, separate ones by gender, which show the BMI ranges grouped by age. That lets you see what’s low, high, average BMI at a particular age.

    If you understand percentiles, you can see this statement is nonsensical: “Studies estimate that 19.6 percent of children ages six to eleven have BMIs that fall into the obese category, and this number is climbing rapidly.” By definition, 5% of the population is in the 95th percentile, and 19.6% of the population is in the 80.4th percentile.

    You write, “My daughter Leah, with an average BMI of 98 percent.” That makes no sense. BMI is a number, not a percent. Perhaps you mean she is in the 98th percentile of BMI for girls her age.

    You write, “month two was when Leah stepped off the edge of the growth chart and waved bye-bye to the black dot that represented the 100th percentile for weight.” Nope. There is no 100th percentile. See above.

    You wrote, “Their girth is the result of a missing genome.” The word “genome” does not mean what you think it means.

    Perhaps someone can recommend some resources for good, basic information on this topic.

  • Heidi

    Thanks for sharing. My 4 mo old boy is at 21+lb and 27″ long. He’s already in 18-24 mo outfits. But I’m fairly small and my husband is average. It does help me to know that I had a great-great grandpa who was a big man and maybe our “little” guy takes after him. But it’s also helpful to hear perspectives from other moms with big kids. :-)

  • Brianne

    I love this. I think we need more pieces like this — pieces by parents who are aware of the risk factors, who are doing the “right” things (whatever those are) concerning kids’ weight, and who still have kids who end up on the bigger side. I have two boys who were almost identical in size at birth and were relatively small — under 7 lbs. One grew astronomically, one grew slowly. At age 3, my older son became “obese” and has remained overweight to varying degrees for his entire life (he’s now 8). He’s not alarmingly fat; he’s over 4 1/2 feet tall and wearing a size 10 instead of a size 8, and most people don’t give him a second glance. If they do, they call him “solid” or “stocky.” But every year, the pediatrician gives us the lecture. His diet is insanely healthy for a kid his age. Most meals are comprised of more than 50% vegetables and a protein; not a lot of breads, carbs, sugars, and very few processed foods. He’s never eaten at McDonald’s or had a soda. I pack every single school lunch in portion-controlled containers. We do allow a small dessert, like a cookie, after dinner, because otherwise food becomes a battle — which I DO NOT want. He’s allowed a little video game time one day a week only, walks to and from school every day, takes dance classes, and we try to go on family hikes and other active outings once a week. And he’s still big. His brother lives in the same household, is parented the same way, and is skinny. We get praise from the doctor for his body type. So how come every spring at the well checkup, I’m a great parent, and when the fall well checkup for the other kid comes around, I’m doing something wrong? All this by way of saying….some kids are big kids. Unless we all start looking at habits and health instead of size, we’re going to keep marginalizing and stigmatizing parents and kids who are doing their very best and are still “wrong” somehow.

  • Margo Kipps

    My three daughters were ALWAYS on the 95+percentile and were often off the charts in the 115%– they all stand over 6 feet tall now– those charts are not very realistic or useful for anyone. The doctor wasn’t upset. ONe size does not fit all. As for the cruelty of other kids and adults– haters gonna hate. Skinny children are called fat.

  • TobyZiegler

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