Does lack of sleep play a role in childhood obesity?

Childhood obesity is garnering a lot of media attention these days, and for good reason. There are a multitude of health-related problems associated with being overweight, including prediabetes and risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which mainly used to affect adults. Researchers wondered how sleep — or lack of — might affect obesity in children.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. The CDC states that obesity is cause by “caloric imbalance”— not enough calories are being expended for the amount of calories that are consumed — and is also affected by various genetic, behavioral and environmental factors. While a tendency to be overweight might run in families, certainly many other factors contribute to a child’s obesity. How does sleep factor into this equation?

Study poses the sleep question

While we all know intuitively that kids need more sleep than adults, the truth is that many kids are so busy and over-scheduled that they carry a constant sleep deficit. Add in the late-night lure of electronics and you can be pretty sure that most children and adolescents are not getting enough sleep. A new study from MassGeneral Hospital for Children, published in the journal Pediatrics this month, found that consistent levels of less-than-recommended sleep during infancy and early childhood made it more likely that a child would be obese at age 7.

What they found

Researchers used interviews and a detailed survey to find out about the sleep habits of 1,046 Massachusetts children at 6 months, 3 years and 7 years old. The survey asked the moms for details of nearly every year of their child’s life. Based on the interviews and surveys, participating children were assigned a sleep score based on their reported sleep patterns and duration over their lifetime. When the children reached age 7, their height, weight, body fat and abdominal fat were measured. Researchers found that those with the lowest sleep scores had a greater likelihood of being obese than those children with higher sleep scores, meaning more sleep overall since infancy.

Greg Heller, D.O., assistant professor at Midwestern University, Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine was not surprised by these results. “My personal opinion is that childhood obesity is a multifactorial problem,” he says. “I believe diet and exercise are the two biggest contributors to childhood obesity. I also believe optimal sleep plays a role in obesity, as a well-rested body is a healthy body.” He shares that if your body is under stress caused by a lack of adequate sleep, your cortisol levels increase and your body stores calories as fat rather than utilizing them in an efficient manner. “Numerous research studies have shown that sleep deprivation, high levels of stress and high sugar/high simple carbohydrate diets are detrimental to our health,” he adds.

What can parents do?

The answer may seem too obvious, but parents need to be more aware of their child’s sleep patterns and habits from an early age — and encourage good sleep habits early on. Dr. Heller also advises parents to stick to a strict routine of activities during the summer months, when many children and adolescents stay up later and accumulate a sleep deficit. “I recommend parents keep a somewhat rigid schedule for children during the summer days,” he shares. “Children do well when given a routine, and this allows parents to provide their children a well-rounded experience over the summer.”

Dr. Heller recommends a combination of the following activities for summertime.

  • Exercise
  • Education (like reading books) 
  • Arts (music or drawing are examples) 
  • Socialization with friends
  • Time with animals (a great stress reliever) 
  • Activities the child enjoys (yes, video games are OK in limited quantity and some studies have shown they can improve eye-hand coordination, which may come in handy for athletes, musicians, artists, etc.)

Tips for better sleep quality

In addition to having a routine in place for summer days, healthy sleep patterns need to be encouraged during the summer — as well as during the school year. Dr. Heller offers these tips for proper sleep hygiene, which affects both quality and quantity.

A consistent sleep/wake cycle means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.

No exercise, food or drink within two to three hours of bedtime. However, exercise should be part of the daily routine to improve sleep quality at night. Food just before bed is more common when children stay up late as the body’s metabolic demands cause the child to get hungry. Food before bed is bad for two reasons: It can disrupt the child’s sleep pattern and the calories consumed will be stored as fat because the child has no time to burn off the calories with activity before sleep.

No light stimulation two to three hours before bedtime. This includes turning off the television, computers, tablets and mobile phones.

Have a bedtime routine. The body and mind like routine and respond favorably to it.

Want to help your child stay on the road to a healthy, active life? Pay attention to his or her sleep — it really matters.

More on children’s health

Healthy kids: The importance of child nutrition and exercise
A guide to your child’s dental health
Teaching kids to love healthy food and exercise