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Should I worry about my child’s weight?

Closeup of a child resting his chin on his fist.

It can be tricky to tell if your child has a weight problem. But a doctor can help—and suggest steps to take.

You might think it would be clear if someone you see every day had a weight problem. But that's not the case with kids.

That's because children are growing. They add inches and pounds at different rates and times. So knowing what's right for them—right now—isn't easy to tell at a glance.

So how can you know if your child's weight is a problem? Schedule regular wellness checkups with your child's doctor. The doctor will take into account your child's age, sex and overall health to let you know, as your child grows, whether everything is as it should be or if it's time to take action.

Understanding your child's BMI

As a first step, the doctor will probably check your child's body mass index (BMI), which uses height and weight to estimate body fat.

Doctors use the same formula to calculate BMI for children as adults—but they interpret it a little differently. A child's amount of body fat changes with age and differs by sex. So for children, the BMI number is also plotted on a growth chart that compares their weight and height with others of the same age and sex. The result is expressed as a percentile.

For example, if your child's BMI is in the 70th percentile, that means your child weighs more than 70% of kids who are the same age and sex.

The general BMI categories for children and teens are:

  • Underweight: Through the 4th percentile.
  • Healthy weight: 5th to 84th percentile.
  • Overweight: 85th to 94th percentile.
  • Obese: 95th percentile or higher.

But BMI is never the final word on your child's weight. It's only an estimate—it does not measure actual body fat or health risks. The doctor will also consider things like your child's overall health, growth over time, eating habits and activity level.

What if your child is overweight?

It's important to help your child get to a healthy weight. Excess pounds make kids more vulnerable to health problems such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, asthma, sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes. And some overweight kids may be teased or even bullied, which can do lasting harm to their self-image.

But helping doesn't necessarily mean putting kids on a diet. Your child's doctor will let you know if that's needed. For kids who are still growing, it may be enough to simply slow down the amount of weight they gain as they grow.

These tips from the National Institutes of Health and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics can help you set your child on a healthy path:

Set a good example. Kids mimic the people around them, especially parents. So make a healthy diet and regular exercise your priority too. And avoid negative talk about your own body.

Count everybody in. Get your whole family on board with eating well and staying active. It's a win-win: Everyone benefits from healthy habits—and your child won't feel unfairly singled out.

Serve smart. For meals and snacks, focus on fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean sources of protein, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. Swap sugary sodas for milk or water flavored with lime or lemon. And go easy with fruit juice, even 100% juice. Whole fruits and veggies are the best sources of vitamins and minerals.

Watch portions. Start each meal with modest servings. Your child can ask for seconds if they're still hungry.

Make moving more fun. Kids need about 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Encourage your child to pick their favorite ways to be active—whether that's heading for a nearby playground or playing organized sports. And you can join in the fun. Play tag or take a hike together. Pick up more tips on raising fit kids.

Stay positive. Criticism won't help and could damage your child's self-esteem. Instead of focusing on your child's weight, focus on healthy habits—and take every opportunity to praise their good choices, talents and loveable qualities.

Reviewed 2/7/2024

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