A unique study is underway by two Arizona State University researchers to identify what leads to rapid weight gain in infants, a major predictor of childhood obesity.
The ASU Snuggle Bug Acurrucadito Study is looking at how moms and babies eat, sleep and play together and how those things influence a baby’s growth. Acurrucadito means “cuddled up little one” in Spanish.
Megan Petrov, associate professor in ASU’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, and Corrie Whisner, associate professor in ASU’s College of Health Solutions are co-principal investigators.
Their expertise — Petrov in sleep and Whisner in gut microbiome — creates the perfect combination for this study which will measure both of those things to determine what role they may play in infant rapid weight gain.
“What are babies doing in the first six months of life? Well, they are eating, sleeping and pooping. And there’s some crying, cooing, tummy time and looking exceptionally cute. But eat, sleep and poop, those are the things that we can measure well,” Petrov said.
The two researchers have been developing this study for the last five years and secured funding in early 2020. Not only is this an area they are both passionate about professionally, but it’s also become personal.
“During that time, we have both had children of our own. Wanting the best for our children has definitely kept us motivated to bring this project to life,” Whisner said.
Ultimately, the five-year study, which is currently recruiting pregnant women, is about addressing what Petrov describes as a “global childhood obesity problem.” Rapid weight gain in infancy is a predictor of childhood obesity.
Petrov says rapid weight gain is different than having excess weight for your age. It’s about the rate of change in the infant’s weight, particularly in the first six months of life. In order to determine what leads to it, Petrov and Whisner say they’re trying to identify some basic “whats” based on what they can measure and then determine if there’s a relationship there.
“What we really want to know is, what sleep-wake patterns are the most beneficial for growth and what are the worst for growth. Also, what types of gut microbes are best for growth and which ones are not so great,” Petrov said.
Whisner added, “I am also excited to see how the introduction to solid foods influences weight trajectories via gut microbial mechanisms. Most research has only explored gut microbial differences in breastfed versus formula-fed infants.”
At the heart of this observational study are the mothers and babies who will participate. The team is actively seeking English or Spanish-speaking women between the ages of 18 and 40 who are expecting a single baby. Twins and triplets are outside the scope of the study.
Study staff visit, either virtually or in person, three weeks after the baby is born, but program recruitment starts anytime during pregnancy with a focus on women in their third trimester.
“We do compensate them for their time, both financially and with swag bags filled with items that would be of interest for any mom, so things like diapers, wipes, age-appropriate learning toys, those sorts of things,” Petrov said.
Recruitment is ongoing and to date, 12 participants have signed up. However, like most researchers, Petrov and Whisner encountered a setback due to the coronavirus and had to come up with alternative recruiting and measurement methods once studies were allowed to resume in October 2020.
“Originally our plan was to do several home visits but we had to change our whole protocol so that we had no in-person contact because we’re working with such a high-risk population, pregnant women and newborns,” Petrov said.
If there was any silver lining to the setback it was that the team was able to practice the protocols on one of their own. Whisner became a new mom in June 2020 and offered to go through the process so they could iron out the kinks and make adjustments before recruitment started.
“I greatly appreciate having had the ability to experience what our study would be like for participants. Putting myself in their shoes as a discombobulated first-time mom was a great way to ensure that we create an enriching and meaningful experience for our generous participants that is also minimally burdensome,” she said.
In the end, they made instructional videos and turned to curbside drop-off and pickup for equipment and samples. And of course, like everyone else, they spent a lot of time on Zoom interviewing the moms and answering their questions.
Now that more people are getting vaccinated and things are starting to open up, the team is able to do more in-person visits, even if it’s just through an open doorway on the porch.
They are also able to work more closely with their clinical community partners to identify potential participants at in-person events.
Ideally, Petrov and Whisner would like to see the results of this study used to develop interventions that turn into evidence-based guidelines and clinical recommendations providers can share with new moms to promote optimal growth for their babies.
But beyond the scientific results, they would also like to create a community of all the moms and children that will last beyond the study, something they’re helping to establish through a variety of ways.
“Most excitingly, we created a baby book that each participant receives at their first study visit and we launched a social media support group for our mamas where they can connect with and learn from one another,” Whisner said.
Petrov added, “We want to give back to these moms and make things exciting for them, doing raffles, eventually creating in-person opportunities at a community park to bring all the moms and babies together. We really want to make it a personal experience, not just transactional.”
Learn more about the study and find out if you’re eligible to participate. You can also learn more on Facebook and Instagram.