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Updated 9:00 AM April 15, 2009

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Low self-control linked to pre-teen obesity

Does your child have a harder-than-normal time resisting temptation? Whether it's with toys or food, that inability to wait can lead to weight gain as children reach their pre-teen years.

How to help children who have trouble waiting

• If the child is constantly asking for the cookies on the counter, put them away. "Out of sight, out of mind."

• Draw the child's attention to other activities if it's not time to eat.

• Have a structure to meals and snacks. If snack time is at 3:30 p.m. and the child is unlikely to be very hungry, teach the child to wait a bit.

• Some kids, no matter what a parent does, may have a hard time delaying gratification. Keeping tempting foods out of the house altogether may be the best solution for some families.

Young children who display an inability to delay gratification appear predisposed to be overweight by their pre-teen years, according to U-M researchers.

In a university study that is one of two reports appearing in the April issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, researchers used a waiting task to gauge 4-year-olds' ability to delay gratification.

The children were asked to choose candy, animal crackers or pretzels as their preferred food and were left alone with two plates of different quantities of the food.

Children were told they would be allowed to eat a larger quantity of the chosen food if they waited until the examiner returned. If they could not wait until the examiner returned, they could ring a bell to summon the examiner back into the room, at which time they could eat the small quantity.

Of the 805 children who participated, 47 percent failed the test, either by ringing the bell before a seven-minute waiting period elapsed, spontaneously beginning to eat the food, becoming distressed, going to the door or calling for a parent or the examiner.

Those who displayed a limited ability to delay gratification were 29 percent more likely to be overweight at age 11 than those who could delay gratification, says Dr. Julie Lumeng, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician with the U-M Health System and one of the study's authors.

The study tried to control for effects of parenting by asking mothers if they expected their children to delay gratification for food, for example, by not allowing the children to snack whenever they want. Researchers found the mother's answer had no impact on the relationship between the child's ability to delay gratification and risk of becoming overweight.

"Even when the mom said she expects her children to be able to wait in their daily life at home, if they are unable to, they were more likely to become overweight," Lumeng says.

The association was partially explained by the mother's weight status. The influence of maternal weight status on child weight reflects genetic as well as environmental factors, and both factors are possible explanations for this finding.

The weight of the mother made a difference in the child's ability to wait to eat, Lumeng adds.

"Moms who are overweight themselves have kids that are less able to wait," Lumeng says. "No study like this one can prove causation, but there's an association."

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