Objectives:

The goal of this study was to determine whether obesity in adolescence is related to the quality of the early maternal–child relationship.

Methods:

We analyzed data from 977 of 1364 participants in the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. Child attachment security and maternal sensitivity were assessed by observing mother–child interaction at 15, 24, and 36 months of age. A maternal–child relationship quality score was constructed as the number of times across the 3 ages that the child was either insecurely attached or experienced low maternal sensitivity. Adolescent obesity was defined as a measured BMI ≥95th percentile at age 15 years.

Results:

Poor-quality maternal–child relationships (score: ≥3) were experienced by 24.7% of children compared with 22.0% who, at all 3 ages, were neither insecurely attached nor exposed to low maternal sensitivity (score: 0). The prevalence of adolescent obesity was 26.1%, 15.5%, 12.1%, and 13.0% for those with risk scores of ≥3, 2, 1, and 0, respectively. After adjustment for gender and birth weight, the odds (95% confidence interval) of adolescent obesity was 2.45 (1.49–4.04) times higher in those with the poorest quality early maternal–child relationships (score: ≥3) compared with those with the highest quality (score: 0). Low maternal sensitivity was more strongly associated with obesity than insecure attachment.

Conclusions:

Poor quality of the early maternal–child relationship was associated with a higher prevalence of adolescent obesity. Interventions aimed at improving the quality of maternal–child interactions should consider assessing effects on children’s weight and examining potential mechanisms involving stress response and emotion regulation.

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