Mothers are in an important position to prevent obesity in their children by shaping early diet and activity patterns. However, many mothers of overweight preschool children are not worried about their child's weight.


To explore mothers' perceptions about how they determine when a child is overweight, why children become overweight, and what barriers exist to preventing or managing childhood obesity.


Three focus groups with 6 participants in each. Participant comments were transcribed and analyzed. Themes were coded independently by the 6 authors who then agreed on common themes.


A clinic of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children in Cincinnati, Ohio.


Eighteen low-income mothers (13 black, 5 white) of preschool children (mean age of 44 months) who were at-risk for later obesity. All but 1 mother had a body mass index (BMI) ≥25 kg/m2, and 12 mothers had a BMI ≥30 kg/m2. All but 1 child had a BMI ≥85th percentile for age and sex, and 7 had a BMI ≥95th percentile.


Mothers did not define overweight or obese in their children according to how height and weight measurements were plotted on the standard growth charts used by health professionals. Instead, mothers were more likely to consider being teased about weight or developing limitations in physical activity as indicators of their child being overweight. Children were not believed to be overweight if they were active and had a healthy diet and/or a good appetite. Mothers described overweight children as thick or solid. Mothers believed that an inherited tendency to be overweight was likely to be expressed in the child regardless of environmental factors. In trying to shape their children's eating, mothers believed that their control over the child's diet was challenged by other family members. If a child was hungry, despite having just eaten, it was emotionally difficult for mothers to deny additional food.


Health professionals should not assume that defining overweight according to the growth charts has meaning for all mothers. Despite differing perceptions between mothers and health professionals about the definition of overweight, both groups agree that children should be physically active and have healthy diets. Health professionals may be more effective in preventing childhood obesity by focusing on these goals that they share with mothers, rather than on labeling children as overweight.

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