Why are we so fixated on the weight of our babies?

infant being weighed in a basket


By Kelsey Osgood

When my son was born, the midwives said they needed to weigh him immediately, because he looked small. The obstetrician had projected a small baby based on the ultrasounds, but he must have been smaller than expected, because they sounded worried.

“If he’s under 2.5 kilos, he’ll be on low birth weight protocol,” one midwife explained, as I lie there sweating and splayed. I had expected that moment to be a euphoric one, but after fourteen hours of labor, multiple doses of heavy narcotics, and assault by forceps, I could feel neither my lower half nor my emotions. Instead, I watched passively as they carried my tiny, mewling offspring to the scale.

As luck would have it, my son was 2.55 kilos. He lost weight after birth, as most babies do, so when we left the hospital, he was five pounds and change. We had bags of newborn clothing, but it was all too big, so we dispatched my mother to a specific store near our London home that sold a size dubbed “tiny baby,” designed for those infants too small for newborn but too big for premie. When the first of the visiting midwives came to our house and weighed my child, we all collectively held our breaths. Sometimes even now, when I conjure up the image of him naked in those early days––his knobby bird knees, his back and arms and even the auricles of his ears covered in dark, insulating down––I find myself inhaling sharply.

This is not to mention the white noise of guilt that churned beneath it all: had I done something when I was pregnant that had made him more delicate than other babies? Consumed too much caffeine? I selfishly couldn’t give it up. Got acupuncture to deliver on time? Perhaps he had needed another week snuggled in utero. Ate too much junk? Had I known, I would have consumed only green juices and hearty fare. Another visiting midwife voiced my fears aloud when she inquired as to how the gestation had gone. “Were you sick while you were pregnant?” she asked. I said no. She furrowed her brow.

“Then why is your baby so small?”

Still, I was very grateful that, aside from a bit of jaundice, my son was healthy. I had heard stories of impossibly small babies––babies the size of pears, babies the size of Koi fish. Less than two months after my son arrived, I read that a baby boy was born eighteen weeks early, weighing one pound and four ounces. I have a cousin, now in her fifties, who also weighed less than two pounds at birth. When she survived to her first birthday, they put her picture in the local paper. The idea of a baby who could fit in your palm, its organs visible through its papery skin, terrified me. But even though I knew my son was okay, and that everything could be much worse, I felt all the while like I was just managing to keep an internal panic at bay.

Was I making enough milk? Was he taking down enough formula? How much would he have gained the next time he was weighed? Every waking moment, these questions ran through my mind. The midwives told me to feed him every three hours, even in the middle of the night, so I dutifully set five alarms and roused him from his slumber.

Panic eventually gave way to reason and acceptance. “Well, you’re small,” the pediatrician shrugged. “He’ll catch up.” Every time I visited a baby clinic, they assured me that he was gaining along his curve––he hovered around the ninth percentile for weight––and that there was nothing to worry about. So I stopped worrying, but as I stopped worrying, I noticed something peculiar: everyone else seemed preoccupied with the size of my baby. And not just my baby, but all babies. “What percentile is he in?” friends and loved ones would ask.  Family members sent pictures of a cousin’s chunky baby accompanied by notes peppered with giddy exclamation marks. Acquaintances for whom the doctors’ charts were not comprehensive enough would show off an app in which they input their baby’s length and weight and it would arrange all the data into different graphs, like an infant FitBit.

“Did you see Denise’s baby?” the receptionist at the doctor’s office asked her colleague, guffawing gleefully. “He’s huge!” She looked over and saw me waiting with my son.  “How old is your son?”

“Five months.”


Of course, I too had asked new parents how much their babies weighed, many times. It was always one of the first things you did, right after ensuring the health of the mother and child and finding out the child’s name. But now that I was on the receiving end of it, I found myself wondering why people cared so much. A baby is a little person, not a pig at a county fair. Do people really believe a baby’s weight is a reliable precursor of future happiness, intelligence, or even physical prowess? Do they think a heavier baby is a healthier one, a more beautiful one, a more miraculous one?

I began to wonder if there was a connection between our collective obsession with baby weight and my fixation on my size as a teenager. In contrast to my vigilant push to make sure my son grew bigger, adolescent me was possessed by the idea not just of being smaller, but of being smaller than other people. Other aspects of personal worth, like intellect, creativity, and generosity, were too vague to utilize as points of comparison, and I was desperate to know how I measured up. So I settled for the lowest common denominator: weight. Like my helpless baby thrust forth from the womb so many years later, I ate so little I grew fur on my arms and back. Despite the manufacturer’s printed warnings, I slept under a plugged-in heating blanket, eager, a psychoanalyst might say, to retreat back into the warmth of the womb myself.

I am not suggesting that the seeds of body consciousness are sown in infancy––my son is way too young to comprehend the idea of a body, let alone fret over its size. What I am saying is that this fixation on size shows us how greatly we need a metric by which we can measure ourselves—and our children—against each other. Because babies don’t really do anything, we are deprived of the valuations we use later on: so-and-so’s child got straight A’s, was accepted to a good university, got the big promotion, and so on. Instead, we resort to weighing and measuring our offspring like bricks of gold. We line babies up next to their peers and survey them in our minds. At first consideration, it might appear that we do this solely because we want to ensure our babies are healthy or developmentally on track. But the tic continues long past the delicate early weeks of their lives, indicating that it’s more about determining whose baby is winning, and who, by extension, is the best parent.

But still, I catch myself gauging my son against other children regularly. When I dress him in the morning and catch sight of the size label, I wonder if I should be concerned that he still fits into clothing meant for six-month-olds as he rounds the bend towards nine. Now that he’s heartier, I also find myself shifting towards other points of comparison, like whether he’s cutting teeth or crawling on schedule. When these worries arise, I do my best to swat them away like gnats. Though I no longer think much about my size, I still compare myself to others incessantly. This is my most enduring negative habit, and I would be devastated if my child picked it up from me.

My son might shoot up in puberty, or he might be small his whole life. If he is, and he is unhappy about it,  at least I know just what to say: ah, sweetheart! You may not be tall, but you have a giant laugh, huge dreams, and one enormous heart

Kelsey Osgood is a writer who recently relocated back to Brooklyn after a two-year stint in London. When her son started eating solid foods, he gained so much weight she briefly worried she was over-feeding him.

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