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“Fat baby” fears led parents to starve newborn

27th January 2010

“Fat baby” fears led parents to starve newborn

You remember the case of the otherwise happy and healthy Colorado four-month-old denied health insurance for the “pre-existing condition” of obesity, right?  The general reaction was one of rightful outrage, and the resulting backlash soon forced the insurance company to capitulate and change its policy on babies that are healthy but fat.

Rocky Mountain Health Plans’ denial of coverage to baby Alex is but symptomatic of a shift in the focus on childhood obesity to to direct anti-obesity fearmongering onto chubby babies — see here, here and here.  Perhaps its this growing hysteria on whether chubby babies turn into fat adults that contributed to a Washington couple deliberately starving their infant baby and toddler daughter and feeding the baby laxatives in an effort to force her to lose weight.  Brittainy and Samuel Labberton have been charged with third-degree criminal mistreatment, a felony, and are scheduled to be arraigned on Monday.  Neither is in custody.

According to local news reports (here and here), it would appear as if Brittainy certainly suffers from severe mental health issues, quite possibly including an eating disorder.  The baby was born in August, 2008 after Brittainy was induced at 38 weeks due to poor in utero weight gain, weighing 5 pounds, 4 ounces at birth.  Court filings note that Brittainy was then diagnosed with postpartum depression with psychotic tendencies and that she had stopped taking medication for this shortly after the birth.  A year later, when contacted by police, the 21-year-old mother “appeared emaciated,” said police detectives (I don’t want to give specifics here, but her reported height and weight indicates a BMI of 15, which is severely underweight).  Because of the baby’s low birth weight, doctors told the Labbertons that she needed to be fed every few hours.  The baby was hospitalized two months later after failing to gain sufficient weight.  When questioned by hospital staff, the couple insisted the baby was just “fussy and threw up her food,” yet she thrived while hospitalized and began putting on weight.  When told of her child’s progress, Brittainy was not pleased, said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Carol Spoor.

“Instead, Brittainy complained, ‘Oh my God she’s fat’ and ‘I have a fat baby,’” Spoor stated, recounting the December 2008 interview. “Brittainy insisted that (the girl) should be under the 50th percentile in weight, not over it.

“She indicated that her husband has a weight problem and she does not want her girls to be fat.”

Child welfare workers pulled the girl from the home.  Despite the admitted and remorseless neglect of their baby daughter, court social services didn’t move to take immediate custody of their toddler daughter until a day later and only because Brittainy said she felt she would kill herself and the child. According to court reports, when the older girl arrived at the foster home, she was “ravenously hungry” and eating so fast that she nearly choked on her food.  The couple were nonetheless allowed to see the baby three times a week in presumably unsupervised visits.  Shockingly, police were not notified of the baby’s neglect until seven months later when the baby’s foster parents noticed a “fishy smell” from her bottle following a visit with her parents.  Testing revealed the contents to most likely be laxatives.  In an interview with police:

“Brittainy expressed no remorse for not feeding the baby and admitted to hardly feeding (the infant) for many days,” Spoor said. “She also indicated she wanted to have 12 children.”

…Brittainy Labberton described her daughter as “very fat and overfed,” [Bellevue police Detective Ellen] Inman said. The detective added that the woman believed her daughter was much healthier before she was pulled from the home.

Samuel Labberton, 24, complained to detectives that his 9-month-old daughter had “gained so much weight that now she is fat,” according to court documents. He remained convinced he and his wife had behaved appropriately.  “Samuel told me that he would not change anything if he could go back,” Inman said. “He does not believe that he and Brittainy did anything wrong.”

The public outrage and anger is palpable and you can imagine the kinds of hate-laced comments and arguments for forced sterilization lobbed the couples’ way (and disproportionately at the mother, I might add).  To some degree, it’s understandable. It’s a natural knee-jerk reaction to get angry at hearing of society’s most vulnerable being hurt and abused.  What seems to be lacking however, is the consideration of (and compassion for) possible mental health issues at play here on behalf of the mother and quite possibly even the father.  Do the Labbertons deserve jail time?  Perhaps, although justice may better be served all around if that sentence also carries with it mental health counseling and treatment.  But just as it takes a village to raise a child, it’s that same village that will lead those children to burn it down.  We need to collectively ask ourselves the kind of culture we’re fostering when parents would rather kill their child than see it be fat.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 at 1:16 pm and is filed under Eating Disorders, Mental Health, Rachel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 22 responses to ““Fat baby” fears led parents to starve newborn”

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  1. 1 On January 27th, 2010, Vixen said:

    Sigh. This is my town. My dentist is two blocks away from where they live.

    I can’t even say I’m surprised. It seems quite likely that there are mental health issues involved here …. but even so, is this REALLY such a stretch, considering the virulent alarmist anti-obesity rhetoric shoveled down our throats every day? I think not.

  2. 2 On January 27th, 2010, CTJen said:

    Absolutely heartbreaking and no one stopping to ask where the parents might’ve gotten these crazy notions? Sad…

  3. 3 On January 27th, 2010, Toni said:

    Whether there are underlying mental health issues or not, I don’t know. Frankly, I think that were I to try to live up to all of society’s expectations about my body, the torture involved would CAUSE a mental illness. Like the previous commenter, I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch given the way we are pounded with the “fat is evil and everything possible should be done to avoid it” message every waking moment.

  4. 4 On January 27th, 2010, Ashley said:

    I agree, this isn’t much of a stretch. I have a friend who has a very large and fat baby; at 7 months she was wearing 2T clothing and we (lovingly) called her babyzilla. The baby is perfectly healthy and normal, just large, but already my friend is hearing comments about how “of course she’ll slim out once she starts walking” and “what are you feeding her?!?!”

  5. 5 On January 27th, 2010, Lu said:

    I hate this. These are babies. These are helpless, innocent, sweet babies. You don’t starve them. You feed them. My son was tiny when he was born and then grew into himself. He’s a big kid now. He is tall and healthy. I can’t imagine not feeding a child. I just can’t. They should be punished for child negligence, maybe even child abuse.

  6. 6 On January 27th, 2010, Bri said:

    While I agree that this is horrific and, unfortunately, not an isolated incident (though it’s often harder to tell deliberate starvation from inability to afford food), I do think it’s important to note that it’s a heck of a stretch to postulate that this starvation case stems from coverage of the insurance debacle.

    The insurance story came out this past fall (Oct ’09, based on the article cited here), and the charges against these parents stem from 2008 (and the laxative accusation from Jan ’09).

    Obviously, this doesn’t refute the fact that we’ve been assaulted with fat-bashing articles and “studies” for decades and that they seem to be targeting children more and more with all the BS “epidemic” panic, but I just felt it was fair to mention that this particular scenario of a mentally ill mother starving her child is unlikely to be directly linked to any particular fat-infant story.

  7. 7 On January 27th, 2010, wellroundedmama said:

    Ugh, just UGH. What a disturbing story on so many levels.

  8. 8 On January 27th, 2010, Lady Di said:

    “I hate this. These are babies. These are helpless, innocent, sweet babies. You don’t starve them. You feed them.”

    I know, it’s very heartbreaking. I am a social worker and I unforchanately hear and see things like this often. My only hope is that as a social worker I can help people who suffer from eating disorders to recover and lead happy, healthy, and productive lives. I also want to do eating disorder prevention work provide education about eating disorders to young people and do prevention work.

  9. 9 On January 27th, 2010, Rachel said:

    @Bri: I am certainly not insinuating that the insurance debacle is to blame here, but rather am using it as an example of the growing focus on fat babies. That an insurance company would deny coverage to a breast-feeding four-month-old for a pre-existing condition of obesity is indicative of a larger cultural concern on the issue of fat babies and health. It’s that growing hysteria–and not necessarily the insurance case itself–that I allude may be indirectly related to the Labberton case.

  10. 10 On January 27th, 2010, Regina T said:

    bri wrote: ” but I just felt it was fair to mention that this particular scenario of a mentally ill mother starving her child is unlikely to be directly linked to any particular fat-infant story.”

    Let’s not forget the father here either. He is actively involved in this child’s upbringing and has stated a number of times he believes the same thing the mother does…that this baby is F-A-T.

    The thing that stinks the most to me is, this family has fallen for the hype and fear mongering that is shouted everywhere about fat being unhealthy…and the obesity epidemic. The fact that this kind of unreliable reporting can lead someone who may possibly have a mental disorder and/or chooses to just go with the assumptions made for them by the media….and STARVE A BABY to prevent that horrible horrible tragedy of being fat (pshaw!!)…well….it just stinks. As a super fatty, I am half expecting to be chased down the street, tied to a post, and set on fire for daring to be fat in public. Is that what’s next???

  11. 11 On January 27th, 2010, naomiv said:

    President Obama has just told us that the First Lady’s emphasis this year is to develop a program to combat childhood obesity.

    I think I’d rather have Nancy Bush’s literacy efforts back – that’s a field I can wholeheartedly support, as it improves people’s ability to take in new information and – one hopes – think critically about it.

  12. 12 On January 28th, 2010, Kelly said:

    @Rachel
    The last paragraph in your article is stellar. Thanks.

  13. 13 On January 28th, 2010, julie said:

    I don’t think either of these people are fit parents, and whether it’s lockdown with therapy, sterilization, or whatever, they don’t belong anywhere near children, and shouldn’t birth any more. We do have a very unhealthy obsession with weight in this country, but before a person should consider themselves an adult, capable of breeding, they should be sane, and be able to wade through the shit without falling under. Every reasonable adult needs a filter to find their way among the noise, media stupidity, cultural idiocy, etc., and sort of know right from wrong. Insanity, obsession, and eating disorders are no excuse to try to kill your children.

    OTOH, I don’t think a lot of folks who breed should, so maybe my judgement is cloudy.

  14. 14 On January 28th, 2010, Eva said:

    Please. I’m not surprised the insanity is spreading to babies.
    I have 2 friends both with tiny 4 year old daughters. I HATE having them over my home. Why? All the mothers do is grill the girls about how much they ate, they’re eating too much, praising them for choosing to drink water, one kept making snotty comments about how much fresh pineapple the kid ate!
    These girls are also into gymnastics, soccer, etc.
    Yet, the mothers wonder why “they’re hungry all the time, I don’t get it.”
    Yet not one word to the boys.
    I’ve never seen kids so food obsessed in all my life. Shoot. My mother used to have to REMIND me to eat.
    I believe the amount of formula/breastmilk a baby is supposed to “top out” of has been lowered from 40oz to 32
    Gross. Just gross and insane.

  15. 15 On January 28th, 2010, Bronwyn said:

    Aside from the fact that I tend to get really annoyed when people bring up forced sterilization and other such really awful ideas when it comes to “not letting stupid people breed,” I have to say that these people clearly aren’t fit to be parents, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this unfitness had manifested itself in another way but..

    I’ve heard of not just parents, but doctors being outright worried when a BABY is too fat. And when 8 year olds are being put on restricted calorie diets, we have to ask ourselves if we can’t put at least a little bit of the blame for this on society. Instead of focusing on feeding our children healthily and learning what we should be eating, we’re basically thinking “OMG FAT IS TERRRRRIIIIBBBLE AND IT MUST BE AVOIDED AT ALL COSTS!!!” And since even the most sane adults are subject to this conditioning I think that there should be a lot of discussion about what we should do about *that*

  16. 16 On January 28th, 2010, Luey said:

    Ironically, one of the comments on the second local news report link attacks the mother and father, saying they must “obviously” be fat because of how they treated their daughters (and then goes on to wish them grievous bodily harm, as per usual, I can only imagine the commenter didn’t read other news reports about the mother’s low body weight). What is wrong with people when the word fat becomes the most vicious insult we can fling at someone?

  17. 17 On January 31st, 2010, LexieDi said:

    Wow… I don’t even know what to say.

    Fat babies leading to fat adults? HA! I was born 4 pounds 9 ounces and wasn’t getting enough nourishment while in my mother. At nearly 21, I’m fat, happy and healthy at somewhere between 270 and 300 pounds.

    Fat babies make fat adults, my rosy backside!

  18. 18 On February 2nd, 2010, Piffle said:

    The mother clearly has mental problems if she had post-partum depression with psychotic symptoms; and if they think it’s appropriate to starve their children then they shouldn’t have custody of them. I don’t know how common this is. My sister worked at a child care center about five years ago, and they had to educate the parents of one of their babies about how much a baby needed too. The parents had asked that their baby girl only get one bottle of formula in the time she was in daycare, about eight hours. It wasn’t enough. Fortunately, these parents listened and fed their babies. I have to wonder how many parents don’t get that feedback and starve their kids with the best intentions. The irony is that I’m betting that a starved baby ends up fatter as an adult than a well fed baby, their little bodies probably don’t gain the ability to know when they’re full; because they never get full.

    My eldest was 90% plus in both height and weight; we had to get a new car seat when he was nine months old because he weighed more than thirty pounds. He’s still big, but proportional.

  19. 19 On February 5th, 2010, All Women Stalker said:

    It’s sad that things have come to this…..

  20. 20 On February 8th, 2010, Wogglebug said:

    Piffle, a starved baby does grow up to be fatter than a full-fed baby, but not because they can’t tell when they’re full. It’s because their body has learned that the food supply is unreliable and it needs to prepare for famine, so it stores lots of fats as a protective measure. This is the same mechanism that makes yo-yo dieters regain MORE weight than they lost on the diet: the fat they had before wasn’t enough to see them through the famine, so the body becomes determined to collect even more.

  21. 21 On June 30th, 2010, Kathy said:

    Another twist on this topic… it is a common practice to keep some children’s body weight artificially low, and even low enough to purposely stunt the child and delay puberty, in order to make caring for those children easier on parents and healthcare providers. Many people seem to think starving and otherwise altering the normal bodies of children with disabilities is acceptable when it would be outrageous to do a similar thing to a typical child. What do members of this conversation think?

  22. 22 On November 30th, 2010, SamanthaB said:

    My baby boy is 11 months old and already weighs 25lbs. Only slightly above average but he is now, always has been, and I am sure will continue to be a big boy. I am proud of the fact that he is a ‘fat baby’, babies are supposed to be chubby. These people are obvioulsy insane and I do not disagree that they need some kind of mental health evaluation and treatments, but ANYONE who would harm a child, by mental defect or not, SHOULD BE sterilized. Period.

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