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The link between early childhood sleep patterns and obesity later in life

By Joanne Potter, BSN, RN

By Joanne Potter, BSN, RN

As a new or expecting parent, you know the importance of sleep. From the time you announced you were going to be parents, you heard, “get your sleep while you can before the baby is born.” Or—our personal favorite—”nap when they nap” as advice for how to cope with sleep deprivation once you have a newborn.

As adults who may be sleep-deprived, we know the consequences of not getting enough rest. We can experience crankiness and brain fog while yearning for an IV infusion of coffee to get us through the day. 

Sleep deprivation isn’t healthy, so it’s not surprising that this applies to our children as well. In fact, it may have more significant consequences for little ones as they are still growing.

During the first few years of a child’s life, they experience the biggest growth period than any other time in their life. They undergo rapid brain development during this time, as millions of neural connections are formed every minute.

Dr. Michael Breus (PhD, FAASM), of The Sleep Doctor, explains that growth hormone, vital to a child’s brain development, is produced during deep sleep, underscoring the importance of getting adequate high-quality sleep.

In this article, we will examine the connection between early childhood sleep patterns and obesity, along with common sleep issues. This may cause worry, but don’t panic, mama. We’ll unpack precisely how much sleep your little one needs, along with simple but effective habits to start now. That way, you have the tools you need to help set the foundation for your child’s optimal health.

Child obesity and poor sleep: is there a connection?

A study published by Dr. Janice F. Bell and Dr. Frederick J. Zimmerman found that for young children (from newborns to four years of age), less sleep at night was strongly associated with obesity in the future.

Did you know?
The study found that the amount of daytime sleep had little effect on future obesity. Sleep quality changes depending on the time of night you are sleeping. While naps are important for infants and toddlers, they can’t make up for a poor night of sleep.

The study concluded that sleep deficiency in childhood is a modifiable risk factor relevant to obesity prevention and treatment.

A study by Dr. Elsie Taveras and colleagues looked at the relationship between short sleep in infancy and children’s weight at three years of age. Researchers asked mothers how many hours their children slept at ages six months, twelve months, and two years. 

The researchers then evaluated the children’s body mass index (BMI). They found that short sleep (less than twelve hours per day) in the first two years of life doubled the risk of obesity at age three.

Among dozens of others, these studies show an association between sleep deprivation and becoming overweight or obese. Currently, additional research is being done to examine the evidence between childhood obesity and sleep duration. These studies are adjusting for variables that can influence risk factors for obesity, such as TV and screen time, physical activity, lifestyle behaviors and routines, and parents’ obesity. 

How does sleep impact body weight?

While studies show a correlation between sleep problems and obesity, how does sleep actually affect body weight? Researchers suggest numerous ways chronic deprivation might cause weight gain, either by eating more or burning less energy.

  • Increased calorie consumption

If you’re not sleeping as much, you have more time to eat, which can lead to an increase in calories consumed.

Did you know?
Studies show sleep deprivation decreases leptin levels (satiety-inducing hormone) and increases ghrelin levels (appetite-stimulating hormone), which increases hunger, and it takes more calories to feel full.

  • Decreased energy usage

Being active is the last thing you feel like doing when tired. Babies, infants, and children are the same way. They won’t want to play if they don’t have the energy. A lack of sleep also causes a lower body temperature, slowing metabolism.

Combining high caloric intake with lower energy expended adds to weight gain—this highlights the importance of practicing healthy sleep habits from the start.

Other consequences of poor sleep

If your child doesn’t sleep well on a particular night, you know you’re in for a looong day. They end up cranky, emotional, and overly tired. These are just the short-term consequences of sleep deprivation. 

Hoi See Tsao (MD, FAAP), author of a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, states that “chronic sleep loss is a serious public health concern among children.” Her research shows that kids with adequate sleep are more likely to demonstrate signs of childhood well-being than those who are sleep-deprived. Children who received more sleep were motivated to do well in school and were more eager to learn. She also stated they were more inclined to engage in healthy behaviors than risky ones.

Sleep-deprived children are at an increased risk of conditions, such as:

  • Depression
  • Behavioral problems
  • Academic problems
  • Anxiety and mood-related problems
  • Health problems such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke

Common sleep issues for children

Encourage healthy sleep habits to ensure your child is getting enough rest from the time they are newborns. Identifying potential sleep problems is critical, so you know what to look for, how to prevent them, and how to help your child if they do arise.

  • “They have their days and nights mixed up”

How many times have you heard that? Any new parent knows this happens. Infants develop their circadian rhythm after they’re born. It’s a complex process involving hormones (cortisol and melatonin), body temperature, and circadian genes that can take three months to develop, but for some newborns takes longer. You can help promote your newborn’s circadian rhythm development by exposing them to light during the day, decreasing light exposure at night, and breastfeeding

  • Medical sleep problems

There can be several medical reasons that your little one may not be sleeping well. Common problems include reflux, allergies, and snoring. If you notice your baby snoring, definitely mention it to your pediatrician. Enlarged tonsils or adenoids can be the culprits. 

Being aware of factors affecting your baby’s sleep and bringing it up to the pediatrician is crucial to addressing any issues from the start.

How much sleep does my child need?

It has been proven that adequate sleep is essential early in life for healthy growth and development. It’s also critical to help prevent health problems like obesity later in life.

What does “adequate sleep” mean, though? It depends on the age of your child. The National Sleep Foundation recommends:

(Note: The above ranges are for 24 hours, including all naps and nighttime sleeping.)

Tips to help your child get higher-quality sleep

  • Maintain the same waking and sleeping times as best you can each day

This varies and depends on how old your baby is. It will be a bit different with newborns, but the earlier you can establish a routine, you will set your child up for healthy sleep habits. It’s important to try and . Establish a bedtime routine each evening.

  • Start by making your own sleep a priority

Sleep should be a priority for everyone in the house—including children and parents. Of course, it will be challenging at times (we’ve all stayed up until an obscene hour binge-watching our fave show to have some adult “me” time only to regret it the next day!). Developing healthy habits will set good examples for your little ones. Children watch and learn from you.

  • Ensure that your little one gets enough physical activity

Children generally don’t lack energy. How often have we wanted to bottle that energy and use it for ourselves? Let them burn it off by being physically active during the day. It will help them sleep better at night. Think of ways to stay active and have fun, like going to the park, walking in the neighborhood, playing in the backyard, and finding physical games to play in the house on those rainy days.

  • Turn off all screens at least one hour before bedtime to prevent sleep disruption

This is applicable more for older children, but it’s something to be aware of even for little ones. Screen time includes watching TV or videos and playing games on phones or tablets.

The AAP recommends that for children less than 18 months old, the use of screen time be focused solely on video-chatting. Once your little one is 18 to 24 months, the AAP suggests participating in educational teaching programs and apps with them. For kids older than two years of age, the AAP stresses the importance of limiting screen time to no more than one hour per day.

  • Create a safe, comfortable environment that is conducive to sleep

Start your bedtime routine by dimming the lights, even an hour or two before bedtime. Room temperature is another key factor in how children sleep. It varies, though, as some children like their room to be warmer, and some sleep better when it’s cool. You’ll learn what your child prefers. 

The bottom line

Sleep is just as important as diet and physical activity in promoting wellness and preventing health problems such as future obesity. Nurturing their sleep health sets the foundation for a healthy life from the start.

Sources:

  1. The growth hormone produced during sleep. The Sleep Doctor. 2021. “The Science of Sleep: What Your Brain Does While You Sleep.” 
  2. Sleep stats of children in the U.S. ScienceDaily. 2019. “Only half of US children get enough sleep during the week.”
  3. Shortened sleep and link to obesity in children. JAMA Pediatrics. 2010. “Shortened Nighttime Sleep Duration in Early Life and Subsequent Childhood Obesity.
  4. Shortened sleep in infancy and link to obesity. JAMA Pediatrics. 2008. “Short Sleep Duration in Infancy and Risk of Childhood Overweight.
  5. Body Mass Index. CDC. 2021. “Body Mass Index (BMI).
  6.  Short sleep duration’s relation to weight gain. The Obesity Society. 2012. “Short Sleep Duration and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review.
  7. Light exposure and circadian rhythm. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 2018.PERSPECTIVE: The Long-Term Effects of Light Exposure on Establishment of Newborn Circadian Rhythm.
  8. Snoring in children. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2016. “Does Your Child Snore?
  9. Recommended sleep duration in children. National Sleep Foundation. 2015. “National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary.
  10. Healthy sleeping habits in children. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2020. “Healthy Sleep Habits: How Many Hours Does Your Child Need?

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