Parents Likely To Use Food To Soothe Fussy Infants Interview with:

Kai Ling Kong, PhD, MS Assistant Professor Division of Behavioral Medicine Department of Pediatrics School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences State University of New York at Buffalo

Dr. Kai Ling Kong

Kai Ling Kong, PhD, MS
Assistant Professor
Division of Behavioral Medicine
Department of Pediatrics
School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
State University of New York at Buffalo What is the background for this study?

Response: Infant temperament, or individual behavior styles, can be reliably measured and is related to weight status. However, we know very little about the association of infants’ temperament and their motivation to eat versus engage in other activities (relative food reinforcement). Examining such associations is an important step given the need to use behavioral strategies in obesity prevention in early life. The purpose of our study was to determine if infant temperament, specifically the factors that have been linked with obesity risk, are associated with infant relative food reinforcement. What are the main findings?

Response: According to our results, infants rated higher on cuddliness had lower relative food reinforcement, implicating that infants who enjoyed being held in close proximity to a caregiver were less motivated to work for food relative to nonfood rewards. Additionally, infants that were rated higher on rates of recovery had lower relative food reinforcement, meaning those infants who recovered from distress more quickly were less motivated to work for food relative to nonfood rewards.

Additionally, if a parent sees high motivation to eat in their child, it is not cause for immediate concern. Rather, the parent may want to evaluate their child’s relationship to food. Studies have shown greater parenting influence on a variety of childhood outcomes, ranging from school adjustment to cognition, in more high-risk, prone to distress, and negative infants, supporting the idea that the promotion of positive parenting behaviors could avoid negative developmental trajectories in these at-risk individuals. Parents can encourage their infant to engage in activities other than eating. Using rewards other than food, such as a trip to a playground or stickers, may help reduce their child’s relative food reinforcement. In addition, parents can provide a wide array of toys, peers, and activities for their child so that food in not the main focus. Paying close attention to children’s satiety cues (when they are full vs. when they are hungry), not immediately using food to comfort a child, and modeling healthy behavior can all help children learn a healthy lifestyle. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Infancy is a critical time for development, and the behaviors infants engage in can influence their future health risks. We have shown that it is indeed possible to measure motivation to eat in infancy, as well as traits that are related to this motivation. It is vital that research continue to explore this period of development, and for caregivers to help their infants grow to be healthy individuals by understanding their infant behavior styles. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: Evidences show that parents are more likely to use methods such as feeding to soothe infants that become distressed easily and/or have lower emotional regulation abilities. As a result, the infant may learn to eat in response to their emotions, rather than hunger cues, and thus food becomes their main source of pleasure.

Future studies can examine interventions to change infants’ motivation to eat to other activities, and thus decrease the risk for obesity later in life. Such interventions can include promoting enriched environments, where the infant is exposed to a multitude of different activities, peers, and toys so food is not their primary source of pleasure. We have previously shown that using a non-food alternative, such as music engagement, can alter relative food reinforcement in infants. To further refine the impact of such interventions, future research in this area could examine interactions between infants’ motivation to eat and infant temperament in predicting treatment success. Perhaps, infants who are most in need of intervention (e.g., those who are difficult to soothe and calm) benefit the most from systematic exposure to alternative non-food reinforcers. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: This study successfully identified a need to bring the areas of infant behavioral styles (i.e. temperament) and food reinforcement together. To combat obesity, it is essential to understand how it develops, beginning at the earliest of ages. I believe that developing interventions for those most at risk of obesity in this critical time period will help lower the obesity rate, and promote health and wellness for all individuals. Thank you for your contribution to the community.


Kong Kai Ling, Anzman-Frasca Stephanie, Feda Denise M., Eiden Rina D., Sharma Neha N., Stier Corrin L., and Epstein Leonard H.. Childhood Obesity. July 2016, ahead of print. doi:10.1089/chi.2016.0001.

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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Last Updated on August 31, 2016 by Marie Benz MD FAAD