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.