Providing tools to low-income teen moms to help prevent childhood obesity

Kami Silk, the associate dean of research for the College of Communication Arts & Sciences at MSU, is examining the relationship between obesity in infants and their mothers' access to information on appropriate feeding practices.

More than one-third of adults and one in six children in the United States are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity is linked to a multitude of health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and many types of cancer. Estimates of the annual medical cost of obesity in the United States top $147 billion. Individuals who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds may be more likely to struggle with their weight for several reasons, including a lack of access to nutrition information. Kami Silk, the associate dean of research for the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University (MSU), is examining the beginning stages of life. She is studying the relationship between obesity in infants and their mothers’ access to information on appropriate feeding practices.

Working with Mildred Horodynski, a professor in the MSU College of Nursing and an expert on childhood nutrition, Silk has created the Tools for Teen Moms project. The initiative is aimed at 80 low-income first-time teen moms.

“Compared with older parents, teens are more likely to introduce solid foods too soon,” Silk said. “They are also more likely not to breast-feed. Overall, they are more likely to engage in unhealthy infant feeding practices that can lead to obesity. Infants who are overweight are more likely to be children who are overweight, and that cycle continues into adulthood. There are lots of programs out there that encourage healthy infant feeding habits, but we are using technology to reach these girls.”

A technology platform developed by Gary Hsieh, a former MSU assistant professor in telecommunications now with the University of Washington, delivers daily text messages to the teen mothers over six weeks. Communications include tips — from messages such as putting down a cell phone while feeding the child to behavior suggestions — as well as knowledge quizzes and nutrition recommendations. A web component is also available, allowing mothers to pose questions to nutrition experts.

The project is in its second year and is funded by the National Institutes of Health and MSU AgBioResearch. Information is collected from surveys with mothers, analytics from the web platform and anthropometric measures such as the baby’s height and weight at baseline, three months and six months. Silk and Horodynski will analyze the data and compare the growth of infants whose mothers received the nutrition information with those in the control group whose mothers did not.

Mothers were recruited from four counties in Michigan — Genesee, Ingham, Jackson and Kent — with assistance from the Maternal Infant Health Program (MIHP) in Michigan. MIHP is Michigan’s largest program for Medicaid-eligible pregnant women, with 150 locations statewide that promote healthy pregnancies and infants. The organization provides home visitation to mothers and coordinates care through Medicaid. Silk said the recruiting partnership with MIHP has been invaluable, and she and Horodynski hope to expand their project to increase the dissemination of information for teen moms.

“A lot of people, particularly adolescents, use technology in recreational and perhaps superficial ways,” Silk said. “Tools for Teen Moms has a very functional purpose. It’s a great example of doing something that is both entertaining and educational. If we can demonstrate that it helps young moms engage in healthy infant feeding practices, that’s a huge impact. There’s scalability in this project to implement it on a much larger level.”

Retention of mothers for the project has been good, which Silk notes as an indicator of highlevel engagement. No intensive data analysis has been completed yet, but researchers are hopeful that their observations will match the numbers. Final height and weight measurements of infants will be taken in spring 2016. If results show the project has been successful, the Tools for Teen Moms team will begin applying for grants to broaden its reach.

“This research addresses a very practical, real-world problem — the obesity epidemic,” Silk said. “But it also provides support for teen moms who oftentimes don’t have great support systems. Many aren’t living at home;
some of them are even living in group homes with their children. Being a teen mom can be isolating. This project is providing them with a community of support and information to help their infants grow into healthy children.”

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