-Written by Erica Robinson, NC A&T SU ‘19
A mother’s influence can be the most powerful tool to shape a child’s mind. A mother’s impact can modify a child’s outlook on the environment, society and even subtle things like food. A child’s perspective on food can be drastically altered, especially if the mother has an eating disorder. Eating disorders are characterized as a persistent disturbance of eating or eating-related behavior that results in the altered consumption of food and significantly impairs physical health or psychosocial functioning (DSM-V, p.329). The Children of Mothers with Eating Disorders analyzed the difficulties of motherhood with an eating disorder and the effects of maternal eating disorders on children from birth through adolescence (Patel et al. 2002).
As mentioned in an earlier blog post, maternal eating disorders can affect the life of the baby even before birth (For more information: http://davidsonmaplab.com/blog/pregnancy-and-eating-disorders/). However, after birth is when the influences of eating disorders take full effect. During the postpartum period, breast-feeding is often the main source of nutrient for babies, but women with high levels of concern about body-shape and weight are less likely to breast-feed. Also mothers that made improvements with their eating disorders during pregnancy often relapse to old, unhealthy habits within the first year after birth. Studies show that mothers with eating disorders, like most mothers, have trouble regaining the bodies they had before pregnancy, which explains why these mothers have increased concern about their body image. Due to the babies’ feeding and sleep schedules, mothers have to adapt to new meal and sleep schedules. This change in routine can make it difficult for mothers with eating disorders to maintain their same method of unhealthy food intake.
Subsequently, with the transition to motherhood priorities shifts to the baby’s health. Although the mothers are losing some control over their own usual routine of weight control, mothers gain the complete control over the child’s feeding and mealtime. Mealtime can be a very tricky situation for mothers with eating disorders due to their own beliefs around food. Based on their own problems with eating disorders, mothers tend to feed the children in different ways. Mothers with anorexia nervosa, who restrict their own food intake in order to maintain a low weight, tend to underfeed their children. On the other hand, mothers with bulimia nervosa, who routinely engage in episodes of excessive consumption followed by behaviors to prevent weight gain, may not keep food around the house.
Correspondingly, the relationship the mother has with food affects the child’s developing relationship with food. Mothers with eating disorders tend to have negative attitudes towards mealtimes, causing the children to have unpleasant experiences. These mealtime conflicts can be connected to the children’s weight. In special cases, children of mothers with AN were found to be abnormally low in weight and growth. Physical development isn’t the only growth milestone obstructed by maternal eating disorders. More than a few studies documented cases of children with eating disorders developing psychological disturbances such as emotional problems, verbal communication disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
As children transition from childhood to adolescence, maternal influences are surpassed by societal pressures and their peers’ influences. Adolescence is the time when most eating disorders are developed due the inevitable changes that occur during puberty. Body shape and image becomes a demanding concern for among adolescents and their peers. Although the mothers’ influences aren’t as present at this time, the consequence of maternal eating disorders has already left an impact on the children.
Due to their atypical experiences with food, children of mothers with eating disorders can have altered beliefs about food until adolescence. This literature review verifies the hypothesis that maternal eating disorders are related to growth, feeding, body shape and weight concerns. Although this review is more than a decade old, it begins the discussion about the effects of parental influence on children’s eating behavior.
Patel, P., Wheatcroft, R., Park, R. J., & Stein, A. (2002). The Children of Mothers with Eating Disorders. Clinical Child and Family Psychology, 5(1), 1-19.
Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (2013). Washington, Londres: American Psychiatric Association. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11993543