Encouraging good nutrition habits at an early age can set children on the path to a healthy adult weight. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Healthy weight gain in children can be confusing for parents, but also for doctors.

The earlier we start to form healthy nutrition and activity habits that promote healthy weight gain, the better.

We all need to get better at recognizing when there is excessive weight gain, so something can be done as soon as possible.

I’ve decided to try to make it as easy as possible for people to understand: Generally, children should not gain more than 10 pounds per year.

This is not perfect, but consider: If you gain weight throughout childhood at 10 pounds per year, you’ll weigh about 180 pounds at age 18. This gets you in the ballpark of a healthy adult weight.

Sometimes, the people least likely to recognize when a child is gaining weight too quickly are those closest to the child—the parents.

Several studies have shown that parents don’t always recognize their child as overweight and, when they do, it is often significant weight gain in a short period of time that becomes noticeable. For these reasons and others, physicians—and those who help care for children in a medical home—rely on growth charts that show how a child is growing over time.

It should be an expectation of yours as a parent to discuss your child’s growth while looking at the growth chart during each health maintenance visit or well child check with their health care provider.

As babies grow, pediatricians watch for normal growth of the head, length and weight. Even at these very young ages, we can pick up on over-feeding and excessive weight gain.

At age 2 and beyond, the child stands for a “height” instead of a length and allows for the calculation of a body mass index, or BMI, which compares the child’s weight to height, taking into consideration that taller children can weigh more.

It’s not without problems.

I’ve found the BMI confusing to explain. It often seems much easier for people to understand when it’s explained as annual weight gain.

If an 8-year-old child is gaining 15 to 18 pounds per year, I can more easily explain that we need to work toward a weight gain of about 6 to 8 pounds per year to get them closer to a healthy weight.

What comes next is the counseling on how to do that.

This takes time and a better understanding of what, how much, and when a child is eating and drinking.

We will want to know what the child does with free time when out of school and when not doing homework. The nutrition and activity habits of a child need to be a big focus in visits with the health care provider. This can allow for the promotion of good habits that can help prevent excessive weight gain and also help recognize any problems early on.

It’s also important to assess a child’s sleep habits and their mental health, as these are additional aspects that speak significantly to a child’s lifestyle and overall health.