Pudgy cheeks that once drew "ooohs and aaahs" are eliciting "ughs" from some parents who have struggled with their own weight issues and fear their children will toddle along the same path.
"I have seen parents putting their infant and 1 year old on diets because of history in one parent or another," said Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, who chairs the nutrition committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics and is chief of neonatology at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.
Jodi Hasan is concerned about her daughter's weight because Hasan herself has battled weight problems her whole life.
She carefully manages Maya's diet; well-balanced with fruit and vegetables, and no junk food. Maya is in the 25th percentile for weight for her age and her mother admitted she was unconcerned when the baby's most recent checkup showed she had not gained weight. Her doctor says she is healthy.
"I don't want her to have any of the problems that I had: the self-consciousness, health issues," Hasan said. "I want her to have good self-esteem."
The brouhaha about baby fat was the subject of a recent "Saturday Night Live" skit that poked fun at parents who will stop at nothing to give their baby the perfect body. The "SNL" spoof asked viewers, "Do you have a fat baby? That's why you need Baby Spanx: In no time, your baby will go from flab to fab."
The joke is not far from the truth in many new families, said Dr. Blair Hammond, a pediatrician at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
"There's some parents who are very pleased when their children are thin," Hammond said. "A lot of fathers, even, they're like, 'Yes, my daughter's thin,' when the daughter's like 5 or 6 months old."
An extreme case made headlines recently in Washington state, where parents Britainny and Sam Labberton were convicted of starving their baby out of fear she would become "fat" like her father.
Criminal mistreatment charges were brought after the infant gained just 1 pound in her first two months of life and her bottle was found to contain traces of laxatives. Court documents showed that after the infant was placed in foster care and gained weight, her mother's reaction was, "Oh my God, she's fat … I have a fat baby."
Parental Concerns May be Linked to Weight Study
Some parental panic about roly-poly arms and tubby tummies may be tied to a 2009 study that showed rapid weight gain in the first weeks and months of infancy predicts obesity and high blood pressure in childhood and adulthood.
"We need to stop the notion that fat, cuddly, cute babies are a good thing," Georgia's Bhatia said.
The answer, however, is not to put your baby on a diet. Rather, the best start for a baby is breast-feeding, along with close monitoring by the child's doctor.
"Breast-fed babies tend to gain weight faster early on and then slow down in the next six months," Bhatia said.
Formula-fed babies tend to continue the rapid weight gain as a result of overfeeding or inappropriate feeding by their parents, he said.
Even among experts, there is much controversy about the proper trajectory for weight gain for babies, particularly among premature ones.
"Babies who gain weight at the higher percentiles have better neurocognitive outcome, less lung disease, but run the risk of later adverse outcomes such as diabetes and hypertension," he said. "Babies who grow at the lower percentiles run the risk of lower neurocognitive outcome and more lung disease, but less risk for adverse outcomes."
With more and more new parents going online for advice and support, the mommy blogosphere is rife with controversy about big babies.
One mom blogged on the website MomLogic.com about another mother in her play group who put water in her 7-month-old baby's bottle to keep his weight down. Readers were outraged and one wrote, "This mother is setting her child up for developmental delays and eating disorders. That, my friend, is abuse plain and simple."
Mount Sinai's Hammond said no matter how hard parents try to control their baby's weight and shape their eating habits, it will be their own dining behavior that has the most impact later in life.
'Eat Like I Say, Not Like I Do'
"You don't want to project a lot of anxiety and stress about eating to your kids, if that's possible," Hammond said.
"But, that being said, how many mothers are stressed and dieting all the time? And their kids get that as a role model of how to eat."