Junkfood Science: Baby fat fears reach sumo proportions

June 16, 2008

Baby fat fears reach sumo proportions

Myths about an epidemic of “sumo” babies and baby fat fears have been attempting to frighten young women around the world. It adds to their anxiety and fuels beliefs that babies’ weights are the mother’s fault. Such fears can lead mothers to undereat during pregnancy or try to underfeed their babies, and jeopardize their baby’s health, growth and development. Or tragically, even frighten fat women into aborting their babies.

Claims of alarmingly large babies, reviewed here, were fueled by a recent television show in the UK making “sumo” babies a source of entertainment. While it was sold as a documentary of the biggest babies, it was little more than reinforcing stereotypes, showing fat babies stuffing their faces with chips, and heightening perceptions of an epidemic of enormous babies. Even television reviewers, such as Robert Hanks writing for the Independent, have written in disgust at the sickness in society evidenced by media today. “Take a good look at all the television programmes dedicated to pointing fingers at the freaks, the outliers from the mean, the fattest, the hairiest, the ugliest,” he wrote. Even he could see that the finger-pointing and “medical panic-mongering” in this baby show was disguised behind stereotypical euphemisms and scary anecdotes, with feeble efforts to bring in any real science.

But how many viewers believe that what they see and hear in the media is factual information and how much do such stereotypes reverberate through the culture, fueling condemnation of those who are fat, old, or sick? How often do these stereotypes leave women to worry about larger babies and make decisions that could hurt them or their babies? Where are the documentaries of the harm from fat prejudicial beliefs and of the greater risks already evidenced from public health messages to restrict pregnancy weight gain? Why are the consequences of these scares directed towards fat women and mothers rarely mentioned?

Yesterday, one childbirth educator shared horrifying emails that she’s received from fat women who’d been told by their doctor that no fat woman can ever had a healthy pregnancy, that becoming pregnant is so dangerous and their baby is certain to have birth defects, so it would be best to terminate the pregnancy. One young woman had written, sobbing in fear of even going to the doctor for prenatal care because she was afraid the doctor would make her abort her baby. An expectant mother told the Guardian that she worried everyone would think she was a fat pig for having such a fat baby, even though she was careful and constantly tried to not eat much during her pregnancy to avoid having a big baby.

In the current politically-charged anti-obesity environment, it’s rare for respected medical professionals to speak out against misinformation and provide women with reassuring facts. Dr. Murphy, who also chairs the National Maternity Hospital Research Ethics Committee listed with the Irish Council for Bioethics, recently spoke with Anne-Marie Walsh, writing for the Irish Independent News. Ms. Walsh’s exemplary article, offering some balance to the current panic, appeared today:

Big is beautiful as experts dispel 'sumo baby' myth

... The average Irish new arrival is carrying up to five ounces more than a UK infant when it comes into the world, but a leading Irish consultant warned parents not to be alarmed. Dr John Murphy, consultant neo-natologist at the National Maternity Hospital, said improvements in the nourishment available to mothers over the last 30 years has led to healthier, if heftier, newborns...

UK's Office of National Statistics revealed that the number of babies weighing 10lb or more at birth has jumped by a fifth since 2003.The latest Irish figures show that 1,818 newborns weighed over 10lbs in 2006 compared to 1,703 in 2003. However, this was more or less in line with the population increase and the proportion of larger babies stayed at roughly 2.8 percent of the population over that period.

Although there has not been a dramatic rise in bigger babies here as Britain in recent years, the average Irish baby is still more of a handful than the British newborn and weighs in at 7lbs 11oz...

Quoting Dr. Murphy, Ms. Walsh adds that this is not a crisis and presented information that we almost never hear, anymore:

I suppose that first and foremost, mums are bigger and healthier, taller and fitter and therefore better nourished and have not got conditions like a contracted pelvis, from rickets. I think that the increase in baby size has more to do with the health of mothers than obesity.”

Big babies and birth weight is a good thing. Irish babies are bigger than they are in the UK. Being 6lbs is not the best start in life and smaller babies are prone to things like high blood pressure.”

Dr. Murphy has also spoken on the need to prioritize public health resources towards helping prevent the growing numbers of premature babies and address the shortage of neonatal units, reminding the public that prematurity and underweight is what’s of critical importance for the survival and futures of babies.

There is no evidence for serious concern about babies with healthy baby fat, but there is considerable evidence of concern for those without enough. A healthy baby and a new life should never be jeopardized by disinformation.

Bookmark and Share