Implications of Insecure Parent-Child Attachment for Early Childhood Obesity Risk

Project Information

Principal Investigator: Natalie Williams
Co-Principal Investigator: Dipti Dev, David Hansen
Funding Agency: Layman Award
Award Date:
Theme: Early Childhood
Project URL: N/A

For more information please contact Natalie Williams at


Obesity is a prominent public health concern that affects even very young children. The importance of preventing obesity during early childhood is reflected at the national level in the 2010 White House Task Force Report, “Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation” and in two recent Institute of Medicine reports.

Many knowledge gaps exist in relation to social and behavioral factors operating during the first two years of life, a critical period in the development of obesity. One potential early life risk factor that has received little attention in the obesity prevention literature is attachment security. Formation of a secure attachment pattern is a critical milestone of early development that provides the foundation for positive psychological and health-related outcomes throughout the lifespan.

Recently, a study with a large, nationally representative U.S. sample found that the prevalence of obesity was 23.1 percent in preschoolers with a history of insecure attachment and 16.6 percent in those with secure attachment. Importantly, insecure attachment predicted an increased risk for obesity even after controlling for other risk factors such as maternal BMI and sociodemographic characteristics.

Given this relevant emerging finding and limited research, there is a critical need to build the evidence base linking attachment insecurity with obesity risk during the first two years of life. Additionally, research investigating how or when this risk factor may result in excessive weight gain could help to inform interventions.

This research project will provide preliminary data related to: 

  1. The relation of insecure attachment to excessive weight gain and high weight-for-length in the second year of life 
  2. Aspects of the family environment and child characteristics that may explain or alter the effects of insecure attachment on the development of obesity. 

Participants include mothers and their toddlers recruited from social service agencies serving low-income families in Lancaster County. Data collection will take place at UNL over the course of two study visits (when children are 18 months and 24 months) and via two phone surveys.

The long-term goal of this research is identify modifiable social and behavioral early life risk factors that can be addressed in cross-disciplinary obesity prevention programs to set at-risk children on a trajectory of healthy development.