The battle against childhood obesity begins not in the school lunchroom but in the bedroom. When infants and toddlers lose sleep early in life they gain weight that can last a lifetime, a new University of Washington study reports. Regular, lengthy nighttime sleep encourages healthy development.
Young children are nearly twice as likely to become obese or overweight by the age of five when they sleep less than the recommended number of hours per night (see chart below). Daytime naps are no substitute to nighttime sleep in preventing obesity, the study shows.
The article was published in the September issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine and involved federal from more 2,000 children. Researchers looked at participating children’s reported weight and sleep duration over the course of their childhood.
The relationship between sleep and weight was strongest at a very early age. Children who become obese early on face an uphill battle that may last the rest of their lives.
The reason why children who fall behind on sleep gain weight still isn’t clear. Study limitations prevented researchers from investigating a cause.
In an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, principal researcher Janice Bell offered some possible explanations. She believes overtired children are less active and may gain weight as a result.
Her other explanation is based on how loss of sleep can affect your appetite. As the Sleep Education Blog reported earlier this year, sleep can change the amount of hunger-regulating hormones the adult body produces. Bell suggests this may be true for children as well as adults.
Just as sleep loss can cause weight gain, obesity can lead to serious sleep problems. Childhood sleep apnea is twice as prevalent among obese children.
Make sleep a priority in your child’s life. Toddlers and preschoolers who meet their sleep needs get better grades in school and have fewer behavioral problems.