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How can new moms help their babies develop healthy food habits? UNCG professor's research digs in to it

Dr. Esther Leerkes has received over $10M studying parenting and child development across Greensboro.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — You may have done it before. You take your shoes off. You step on the scale and you wait. The number pops up and you hate it because it's the number you shouldn't be at for your age and height. Did you know this could have all started from the moment your mother gave you your very first bottle?

For many of us, bodyweight is often top of mind. For Dr. Esther Leerkes, the UNCG Associate Dean of Research at the School of Health and Human Sciences, researching the subject is what brought her to the area. 

"I moved to Greensboro because of this job at UNCG Greensboro," Leerkes said. "I have been here my entire career." 

Dr. Leerkes is trying to answer a question plaguing the nation: Why is America obese?

Dr. Leerkes says it may start with the way you parent or the way you were parented.

"Sometimes when your child is crying or upset, or you are in a setting where you need them to be quiet, you give them candy," Leerkes said. "But we may be training children over time to think about food in an unhealthy way." 

Parenting is a skill she learned early in life and it is why she tackles this job today.

"I was a teen mom," Leerkes said. "I was 15 when I had my first daughter." 

Leerkes says Chelsea changed her life.

"When you give birth to a baby, you are overcome with such powerful feelings of love, so that would be the most immediate reaction, but it was quickly followed by a lot of fear of 'Am I going to screw this up?'" Leerkes said.

Moms and dads, you can relate to this. Parenting is tough. By studying the way a mother parents the way she does, Dr. Leerkes says it could lead to a child developing unhealthy food habits and becoming an overweight adult.

"We need to understand what's happening in the mind, what's happening in the body, what's happening in the household," Leerkes said.

Leerkes is making a difference in the world. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development granted her iGrow program nearly $3 million to dig even deeper into her research. 

"I think it was that experience in wanting to be a good parent and taking those classes very much influenced the nature of the research I ended up doing," Leerkes said. "That experience really influenced the rest of my life." 

If you are interested in joining in on the iGrow study, Leerkes is still looking for 20 to 30 expecting mothers with due dates before the end of February to enroll. Call (336) 334-5328, contact via email at igrow@uncg.eduor or fill out an interest form directly at https://igrow.uncg.edu/.

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