Parents who enforce an early bedtime can take heart—they may actually be reducing their child’s risk of obesity. A new, comprehensive study has found that lack of sleep in infancy and early childhood increased the risk of obesity and overall body fat by age seven.
The study, which was just published in the June 2014 issue of Pediatrics, analyzed data from a long-term investigation of how environmental factors and lifestyle choices of mothers impacts the health of their children in utero and early life. In a statement released from lead study author, Elsie Taveras, MD, MPH, chief of General Pediatrics at Mass General Hospital for Children claimed, “Our study found convincing evidence that getting less than recommended amounts of sleep across early childhood is an independent and strong risk factor for obesity and adiposity (overall body fat).”
Information was gathered from mothers during in-person interviews when their children were 6 months, 3 years and 7 years old. The mothers also completed questionnaires when their children were ages 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6. Sleep related questions included how much time their children slept, both at night and during naps on average each day. Measurements taken at the 7-year visit included height, weight, total body fat, abdominal fat, lean body mass and waist and hip circumferences. Those measurements can more accurately reflect cardio-metabolic health risks than just body mass index alone.
Lack of sleep was defined as less than 12 hours per day from ages 6 months to 2 years, less than 10 hours per day for 3 and 4-year-olds and less than 9 hours per day from ages 5 to 7. Based on the questionnaires, children were assigned a sleep score 0-13 (0 being the most curtailed sleep and 13 being no sleep disruptions) covering the entire study period.
Researchers found that children with the lowest sleep scores had the highest levels of all body measurements, including abdominal fat, which is considered particularly hazardous to one’s health. The association was consistent at all ages, meaning there is no critical period for the sleep and weight relationship. Children who were consistently sleep deprived tended to come from families in racial and ethnic minorities with lower socioeconomic status and less education, but the association between sleep and obesity was not changed after adjusting for these factors.
Taveras offered this advice for parents in promoting good sleep:
- Adhere to a consistent bedtime
- Limit caffeinated drinks, especially late in the day
- Avoid having technology in bedrooms (computers, tablets and smart phones)