Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Biological and Environmental Sciences

First Advisor

Alison Tovar


Snacking has increased among young children in recent decades, yet little is known about snacking during infancy. Therefore, three studies were conducted to explore the influence of parent and community factors on infant snacking. Across the three studies, findings suggest that infants are snacking on less healthy foods, mothers may offer snacks to prevent hunger and manage infant behavior, and less healthy snacks are widely available in the retail food stores. The first study was a secondary analysis of data from the Nurture study that examined the prevalence of less healthy snack intake at three time points (4-6, 7-9, and 10-12 months of age) and examined prospective associations between less healthy snack intake and infant weight trajectories in a predominantly low-income cohort of non-Hispanic Black mothers (n = 666). Multilevel growth curve models explored associations of baby snacks and sweets with infant weight-for-length (WFL) z-scores. Findings suggest that less healthy snack intake increased across infancy with 3.0 baby snacks/day and 1.0 sweets/day at 10-12 months. Growth curve models showed that infants who had sweets >2x/day had significantly higher WFL z-scores during the second half of infancy compared to infants who never had sweets. Findings suggest that less healthy snacks, specifically sweets, may contribute to infant adiposity. The second study was a recurrent cross-sectional qualitative study exploring how low-income mothers define snacking and reasons for offering snacks during infancy. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of mothers (n = 15) when infants were approximately 6 and 12 months of age. A thematic analysis approach was used to identify codes and themes. Findings suggest that snacks are commonly offered during infancy and that mothers define snacks as smaller portions that help with hunger between meals. In addition, during early infancy mothers described snacks as sweet, and across the first year of life mothers described using snacks to manage behavior. The third study was an observational study to assess the availability, price, and nutritional content of commercial infant foods and snacks in retail food stores in low-income communities across Rhode Island. A random sample of grocery stores (n = 14) and supermarkets (n = 8) was selected from low-income census tracts. A 14-item tool was developed for this study to assess the nutrition environment of commercial infant foods (e.g., infant formula, purees) and snacks (e.g., puffs, yogurt melts). Finding suggests that most grocery stores (n = 13) and all supermarkets (n = 8) sold commercial infant foods and snacks. The types of infant foods and snacks available in grocery stores varied with infant formula having the highest availability followed by puffs (grain-based, n = 10 and corn-based, n = 10) and purees in jars/packs (n = 8). The types of infant foods and snacks available in supermarkets were less varied with the majority of products available in all stores. Infant foods and snacks were generally lower in price per standard serving in grocery stores compared to supermarkets, and infant foods were generally higher in price per standard serving compared to infant snacks in both store types. Broadly, snacking begins during infancy, and less healthy snacks may contribute to the risk of infant adiposity. Mothers use snacks to prevent hunger between meals and to manage infant behavior, and commercial infant snacks are widely available in low-income communities. Results from these studies suggest that caregivers may benefit from additional guidance related to healthy snacking during infancy, and additional programs and policies are needed to encourage the availability of healthy infant snacks in retail food stores.



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