Top tips on preventing obesity in toddlers who overeat

Dr Gill Harris, Consultant Paediatric Clinical Psychologist


Following his recent recovery from coronavirus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has publicly blamed excess weight for his need for intensive care. He has subsequently declared a war on the UK’s obesity crisis and is planning a post-pandemic public health drive to battle the growing problem.

Today, almost a quarter (25%) of children aged 4-5 and around 35% of 10-11-year olds are overweight or obese.1 We know that obese children are more likely to become obese adults,2 and that a child’s risk of becoming obese in later life can be pre-determined by the age of six.3 This could lead to ever-growing rates of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and spiralling numbers of strokes and heart attacks.4 Alarmingly, recent reports have suggested that the imposed coronavirus lockdown is also negatively impacting childhood obesity rates and worsening the crisis due to a lack of exercise and changes to sleeping and eating habits.5

Whilst most toddlers stop eating when they sense they are full, some children are very responsive to the sight of food, they do not realise that they are full and will carry on eating all the food that is on their plate and may then ask for more. They will also eat when they are bored, upset or distressed and tend to eat very quickly. This poor energy regulation is usually due to genetic factors, or may have developed due to factors present during pregnancy.

If your child always seems to be eating and always seems to want food, and if they are slightly or very overweight, then there are things that you can do to prevent further excess weight gain. Just because a food responsive child asks for food it does not always mean that they need it. Unfortunately, because these children respond so well to food and can often get upset easily, parents tend to use food to change their child’s mood, this too can lead to overeating and overweight.

So what can you do? Even though overeating is genetically determined, there are various ways to manage children who tend to overeat and help prevent obesity. Here are some of our top tips:

  1. Offer fruit and vegetables from the beginning of weaning and continue to offer them at all meals. Babies will learn to like them by seeing, touching and tasting them
  2. Be your child’s role model by including your child in family meals and eating the foods you would like them to eat. They will learn by copying you and others that eat with them
  3. Allow your child to stop eating when they have had enough – avoid coaxing or bribing them to eat more than they want. Avoid giving pudding as a reward for eating the first savoury course
  4. Limit portion sizes to suitable amounts for your child, you can even use smaller plates
  5. Encourage your child to chew and eat more slowly – you could use a smaller spoon. Social and interactive mealtimes as a family will also tend to be slower than when children eat alone
  6. When giving high sugar, high fat foods occasionally at the end of a meal avoid labelling them as ‘naughty but nice’ or describing them as a reward or treat, describe them instead as ‘sometimes’ foods
  7. Develop a meal routine and only give food at three meals and 2-3 planned snacks, keeping high calorie food out of sight as children may ask for food when not hungry
  8. Hug or cuddle your child or distract them to cheer them up rather than using food to comfort them or keep them quiet
  9. Always offer fruit and vegetables at meals and snacks and offer high fibre and high protein foods that require chewing
  10. To make it really easy to know you are giving the right amount of food, why not try our new resource, the Toddler Menu Planner, a meal planner which helps take the guesswork out of toddler meals and set up healthy habits for life


These steps will help your child control their eating and reduce the amount of unhealthy foods they consume. If you found this helpful, why not share with your friends or family?




1 National Child Measurement Programme 2018 –
2 World Health Organisation –
3 New England Journal of Medicine – acceleration of BMI in early childhood and risk of sustained obesity
4 Health and Social Care Information Centre (2015) Health Survey for England 2014 – October 2018

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Further Reading

  • Lucy Upton, Specialist Paediatric Dietitian and Nutritionist   Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century, with recent NHS figures revealing that one child under five is admitted to hospital because of obesity every week. The coronavirus pandemic and resultant lockdown has challenged already difficult circumstances and during this time many children were consuming more higher fat and/or sugar snacks, spending longer in front of screens and missing out on regular activity including physical education classes.
  • Katie Fox, Primary School Teacher   Due to coronavirus, playgroups and nurseries are shut and those children due to start school in a few months will be out of routine and away from friends. It is understandable that many parents are worried about getting their children ready for September. Children learn and progress at different rates so there are no set criteria on what they need to be able to know or do when they first start nursery, but if they have had some experience learning at home it could help to make it a smoother transition. Turn taking games, imaginative play, reading, and developing fine and gross motor skills can promote independence, build confidence and help develop simple skills.
  • Dr Gill Harris, Consultant Paediatric Clinical Psychologist Dr Maddy Harris, Clinical Psychologist   In times of crisis – such as the one we are currently living in – parents may find that the normal stresses of everyday life are magnified and additional worries and concerns emerge. Knowing how to cope may prove difficult, but an approach which has widely been discussed in the media and on social media is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).The premise of ACT is that fears and anxieties are seen as real and cannot be ‘challenged’ away, unlike with cognitive behavioural therapy. By concentrating on our actions we are able to work past our fears. This method may help those struggling with this new chaotic routine we find ourselves in. The Infant & Toddler Forum are here to help with our top tips on how to apply this intervention.