Kai Ling Kong, PhD, MS
Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine; Research Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Kansas School of MedicineFull Biography
Kai Ling Kong, PhD, Doctoral Research Faculty, Health Services and Outcomes Research, leads a team of researchers at the Children’s Mercy Research Institute (CMRI) Baby Health Behavior Lab who are dedicated to the health and developmental outcomes of infants and young children. Her team focuses on obesity prevention and targets the development of eating behaviors in infants and toddlers. The lab studies the influence of non-food alternatives, such as music, on children’s motivation for food.
According to a 2017-2020 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19.7% of children and adolescents age 2 to 19 years were obese. The prevalence of obesity was higher in children from families in the lowest income group (25.8%) and for Hispanic (26.2%) and non-Hispanic Black (24.8%) children.
Dr. Kong said, "I am concerned about the disparities in health outcomes for children from historically marginalized populations and low socioeconomic backgrounds. Because obesity contributes to other serious health conditions, to be truly comprehensive and successful in preventing obesity, my research focuses on tackling this issue starting at birth for infants and children from these communities."
I am concerned about the disparities in health outcomes for children from historically marginalized populations and low socioeconomic backgrounds.
Dr. Kong first became interested in studying infants and obesity prevention while working toward her PhD in nutritional sciences at Iowa State University. During her fellowship at the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB), Dr. Kong received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 award for her study, “Enhancing alternatives to eating,” which investigated the relationship between infants with high motivation to eat and the impact of non-food alternatives such as participating in the Music Together program on motivation to eat.
As Dr. Kong completed her fellowship and continued her research into infants and obesity prevention, she wanted to work with communities historically marginalized by research and medicine and pointed to the CMRI’s commitment to inclusion and diversity. She said, “I wanted to bring my program to serve underrepresented and low-income populations. Children’s Mercy has a good reputation within the communities it serves, and that is a big reason why I chose to come here.”
When Dr. Kong joined the CMRI in 2020, there were few researchers in the field of infancy, nutrition and obesity. At the time, the CMRI’s obesity research focused on school-aged children. Dr. Kong helped to fill that gap when she brought her research program to the CMRI, and she received a two-year extension to her NIH award through summer 2023. With support from the CMRI, Dr. Kong created the Baby Health Behavior Lab. Since its inception, the lab has worked with over 400 active research participants.
Baby Health Behavior Lab research
Dr. Kong and the Baby Health Behavior Lab staff have several ongoing projects. In the summer of 2023, the lab held a ceremony for a cohort of graduating babies and their parents from the Better Together study. The infant-parent dyads had participated in a 16-week music enrichment study. The study aims to assess the feasibility of the Music Together program to enhance the health and development of 9- to 24-month-old healthy babies from low socioeconomic status (SES) and marginalized backgrounds. The project, which received funding from Our Healthy Jackson County and the Frontiers Clinical & Translational Science Institute (CTSI) at the University of Kansas, continues with a second cohort of research participants.
Dr. Kong’s mentee, music therapist Amy Smith, PhD, Post Doctoral Research Scholar, Health Services and Outcomes Research, also received a CTSI grant to conduct a secondary analysis of the Music Together program that examines the engagement between parent and child and assesses the acceptability and feasibility of a music enrichment program among families of low SES.
In the Early enriched Home Environment (ENHOME) study, Dr. Kong and the Behavior Health Baby Lab team are researching resilience factors that protect against obesity development in children from families of low SES during the first two years of life. Her team is investigating whether an early-enriched home environment might indirectly protect children from obesity by encouraging the development of a brain reward system favoring non-food reinforcers over food and enhancing self-regulation during infancy.
Dr. Kong’s lab is also conducting the observational Smarties study to evaluate the influence of early feeding practices and early exposure to added sugars from infant formula on infant cognitive development. The study team collects dietary intake, home environment and socioeconomic background information along with cognitive developmental testing in a cohort of infants from families of low SES.
The Baby Health Behavior Lab recently completed the “Enhancing alternatives to eating in infancy” study that was funded by Dr. Kong’s NIH R01 grant. Her team conducted a two-year, randomized, controlled trial to assess the effects of a music enrichment program versus a play date control in 9- to 15-month-old healthy infants who were strongly motivated to eat versus engage in other behaviors. Study findings indicated that alternative activities may alter the reinforcing value of food in young children who are strongly motivated to eat.
Because obesity contributes to other serious health conditions, to be truly comprehensive and successful in preventing obesity, my research focuses on tackling this issue starting at birth for infants and children from these communities.
Dr. Kong collaborated with Tera Fazzino, PhD, University of Kansas, on exposure to added sugars and hyper-palatable foods in infancy as risk factors for the development of elevated food motivation and rapid weight gain during early childhood. Their study showed that most (>90%) infants were exposed to hyper-palatable foods by age 15 months. Furthermore, hyper-palatable foods comprised 38–52% of infants’ daily energy intake from food. They co-authored a review article in Obesity Review.
When Dr. Kong considered future goals for the Baby Health Behavior Lab, she said, “I would like to find innovative solutions to improve child health and development in children from high-risk populations during early childhood. I also look forward to recruiting and mentoring trainees like Dr. Smith to do cross-interdisciplinary work to further advance the field.”
Other infant research projects
In addition to Baby Health Behavior Lab studies, Dr. Kong has collaborated with researchers at Children’s Mercy (CM) and throughout the United States. She and Brenda Salley, PhD, Clinical Psychologist, Developmental and Behavioral Health and Director of the Baby Lab at CM and the University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC), are collaborating on a project funded by Our Healthy Jackson County to study how parents talk and sing to their babies to help them learn language.
Dr. Kong and Keith Feldman, PhD, Doctoral Research Faculty, Health Services and Outcomes Research, worked with researchers at the University of Michigan on a study to identify sucking profiles among healthy infants to assess the predictive value for future weight gain and eating behaviors. In another project, Dr. Kong collaborated with colleagues from UB, Pennsylvania State University and Thomas Jefferson University to study the effects of co-exposure to prenatal tobacco and cannabis on obesity development in children from infants to 12 years.
Dr. Kong also wishes to acknowledge the Baby Health Behavior Lab staff members and said, “Our research is truly a team effort.” In addition to Dr. Smith, lab members include Adrianne Griebel-Thompson, PhD, MS, RD, LD, CLC, Postdoctoral Research Fellow; Catherine Serwatka, BA; Hideko Engel, MS; Michaela Roxas, MA; Sarah Totta, BS, MD candidate at UMKC, Harish Karthikeyan, BS, MD candidate at UMKC; Melissa Carlson, BA, DO candidate at Kansas City University (KCU); and Katie Fortino, MT-BC.
Dr. Kong is also an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at UMKC School of Medicine and a Research Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at KUMC.