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My six-year-old is overweight. Will she just grow out of it?

The question: My six-year-old daughter is overweight. I remember being chubby when I was her age, and I eventually grew out of it. Should I be worried, or just let her be?

The answer: I think it would be a mistake to make assumptions about your child's future weight. While it is certainly possible that your child will "grow out" of her chubbiness, there may be things that you can do now that will decrease her risk of obesity in the future.

As a first step, I suggest that you have your daughter's weight and height measured by your family physician or pediatrician. Ask for the results to be plotted on a growth chart that compares your child's growth to others her age. These charts should be readily available at your doctor's office. This will help determine if there is a concern and, if so, how severe. It will also establish a baseline against which your doctor can compare future measurements.

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At this young age, keeping your child active is extremely important. Don't count on her school gym class to provide all her physical activity needs. Fortunately at this age, kids love to move and play! Any activity that doesn't require sitting in front of a TV or computer screen should be encouraged.

Here are three other things that parents can do to improve your child's health and minimize the risk of future obesity:

Eat breakfast. This is a no-brainer. From better school performance to decreased risk of obesity, the benefits of eating breakfast have been well established. For children who have gotten out of the habit of eating breakfast, start slow. Even children who aren't hungry in the morning can usually be convinced to try a piece of toast or small carton of yogurt.

Get a good night's sleep. Once again: better school performance, fewer behavioural problems, less chance of obesity. Despite the best efforts of parents, some children will develop bad sleep habits over the years. This can include both struggles to fall asleep and well as awakenings in the middle of the night. If this sounds familiar, don't hesitate to discuss possible strategies with your physician, or consult one of the many books on the subject like the classic Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems by Dr. Richard Ferber.

Avoid sugary drinks. Kids love the taste of juice, pop and sports drinks, but these beverages supply a huge dose of calories, mostly in the form of pure sugar. Although 100-per-cent fruit juices do have some redeeming qualities like natural sugars, they are also high in calories and should be kept to a minimum. My recommendation is to limit fruit juice to one serving per day. All other sugary drinks should be saved for special occasions only.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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