A Parent’s Guide to Your Child’s BMI
At Well Child visits, your pediatrician may show you a growth chart with your child’s BMI – or body mass index – plotted on a graph. It’s essentially a measurement to see whether a child’s height and weight are in proportion compared to kids of the same gender and age. In other words, if a child measures in the 60th percentile, that means 60 percent of kids of the same age and gender had the same or lower BMI. Kids who measure in the 85th percentile or above are considered overweight, while the 95th percentile and above are obese. But what should parents keep in mind when thinking about the numbers?
BMI is a screening test for obesity and varies based on a child’s age and gender. The number allows physicians to monitor whether a child’s height and weight are growing in proportion, or whether one is increasing faster than the other. If a child stays consistently along the same percentile each year that may be reassuring, but if the BMI percentile increases significantly that may be a sign of concern.
Currently 21 percent of kids in the US fall above the 95th percentile for BMI. Normally, that should only be 5 percent. That’s cause for concern. While media reports suggest that pediatric obesity is leveling off, and to a degree it is, the percentage of kids who fall above the 99th percentile continues to increase with no signs of slowing.
Because a significant number of kids are obese, the physicians at UW Health’s Pediatric Fitness Clinic revised the existing growth chart used in most pediatricians’ offices. Using CDC data, they’ve revised the curve to show more plots past the 95th percentile. Previously, children whose weight/height placed them above the 95th percentile would essentially be “off the charts” leaving no way to track the continued changes in their growth. The revised chart, available for use in UW Health clinics, adds many new percentile curves, and now enables physicians to track a child who falls within the 100, 110 or even 200th percentile.
One potential drawback to such a chart is that it can seem normal for a child to be in the 100th percentile of above because he or she is still “on the chart.” That is one reason it’s important to provide information and context for the risks obesity presents. Kids who are obese are at a significantly greater risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and other health conditions once seen only in adults. But, it’s also important for families to understand that it is not just the child’s issue. It is important for the whole family to work together to create healthier lifestyle habits.
Parents are always the best advocates for their kids. No matter your child’s weight, if you have concerns, speak with your child’s physician about them. And remember, the UW Health Pediatric Fitness Clinic is available to help. In a supportive and encouraging environment, kids work with a pediatrician, dietitian, and exercise physiologists to develop a sustainable plan for making positive changes in their health.