Chronic Lack of Sleep Can Lead to Obesity in Kids

Why Getting Enough Sleep Regularly Is Important for Kids' Weight and Health

Napping and getting enough sleep at night are important for kids' health and weight. Getty Images

We've all heard about the importance of getting enough sleep to maintain a healthy weight. Research shows that lack of sleep may be a risk factor for obesity in both children and adults, and that not getting enough sleep may lead to changes in the body's metabolism and hormones that regulate appetite. And now, recent research indicates that chronic sleep loss in kids is linked to an increased risk for obesity and illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.

In a study led by Elsie Taveras, MD, chief of general pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, doctors found that children who consistently get less than the recommended amount of sleep in the early years of their life were more likely to be obese and have accumulation of fat in their bodies (such as around their abdomens) by age 7.

Researchers tracked the sleep habits of 1,046 kids by asking mothers how long their child slept at night and during naps on an average day. (The group of kids being studied are part of a long-term study examining the impact of various health factors on kids from pregnancy to after birth; the mothers were interviewed when kids were 6 months old, 3 years old, and 7 years old, and they filled out questionnaires when their children were 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 years old.)

When researchers examined the data, they found that the kids who slept the least had the highest levels of obesity and accumulation of body fat, especially around the abdomen.

"We found convincing evidence that poor sleep is a strong risk factor for obesity," says Dr. Taveras. "Belly fat is particularly hazardous for metabolic risk, and is associated with heart disease and diabetes," says Dr. Taveras.

Doctors say more research needs to be done to understand exactly why chronic lack of sleep is linked to obesity.

One of the many factors behind why insufficient sleep may lead to obesity include the fact that less sleep has been shown to influence the body's hormones that regulate hunger and signals that say, "I'm full." Or it could have something to do with household routines that lead to both less sleep and increased consumption of food, such as watching TV too late and snacking on unhealthy food. Whatever is behind the link, parents can take the following steps to protect their child's health by establishing some good sleep habits. Some strategies to try:

Set a bedtime and stick with it.
Pick a bedtime and stay close to that time every night. When you allow a young child to stay up till 11 o'clock some nights and then expect him to fall asleep at 8:30 on other nights, he is more likely to have trouble going to bed and falling asleep. When it comes to bedtime, consistency is key.

Establish a consistent bedtime routine.
Whether it's a bath and a book before bed or talking about your day quietly with the lights turned down, find a bedtime routine that works for you and make it a nightly ritual.

Knowing what to expect and keeping activities mellow and quiet will help your child transition smoothly into bedtime and help her relax as she gets ready to drift off to sleep.

Limit caffeinated beverages.
Sodas that contain caffeine are not a good idea for children, especially close to bedtime. (A better option is seltzer mixed with a little bit of juice without added sugar.) And be aware of sneaky sources of caffeine, such as chocolate.

Cut out high-tech distractions.
Don't allow kids to have TVs in their rooms, and make sure all screens (including phones) are turned off. If your child has a cellphone, keep it out of her room at night.

Know how much kids should sleep.
While the amount of sleep kids need can certainly vary a bit from one child to the next, growing children do need more sleep than adults and these general guidelines can be useful in figuring out how much sleep your child should get. (Generally speaking, babies need anywhere from 12 to 18 hours and older kids, such as school-age children, need about 10 to 11 hours of sleep.) To learn how to spot signs that your child is not getting enough sleep, read, "Is Your Child Getting Enough Shut-Eye?"

In addition to obesity, lack of sleep has been linked to other problems such as trouble concentrating, irritability, moodiness, hyperactivity, and even immune system impairment. Maintaining a healthy weight and reducing risk for health problems such as heart disease and diabetes are further reasons why parents should make sure they are doing everything they can to ensure their kids are consistently getting enough sleep.

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