There’s a common adage which warns parents that ‘a lack of sleep will stunt a child’s growth’. Unlike many sayings, this one has some truth behind it. Nighttime is when the body releases HGH (human growth hormone), which is essential for healthy growth and development in childhood.

But now scientists have found evidence that too little sleep during infancy may also have the opposite effect, by increasing the chances of children developing obesity.

Child obesity has become a hefty problem in developed countries, especially in the United States and Europe.  The World Health Organization now classifies childhood obesity as an epidemic that can have serious consequences like early-onset diabetes and high blood pressure. One of the most feasible ways to curb childhood obesity is through prevention. This new study suggests the importance of getting enough sleep early in life.

Sleep’s long-term impact on children

The research was led by chief pediatrician Dr. Elsie Taveras of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA, who followed 1046 children as they grew from the age of 6 months to 7 years old.  The study was part of Project Viva, a long-term study on how factors like sleep influence the health of mothers and children.  Taveras wanted to see if there was a connection between obesity and “curtailed sleep” (shortened sleep relative to the average sleep duration).

Researchers gathered data on how much sleep each child received on average, starting at 6 months old and every year after that until age 7. Children’s body measurements were also taken at each age.  Dr. Taveras’s approach was unique because not only did she measure children’s Body Mass Index but attempted to more accurately visualize children’s health risks by taking measurements of total body fat, abdominal fat, lean body mass, and waist and hip circumference.

Less sleep equals more body fat

After evaluating children’s sleep patterns and body mass during infancy, early childhood, and mid-childhood, the results were sobering.  The researchers found that children with the lowest sleep scores also had the highest levels of all body measurements of obesity.

This included the highest levels of abdominal fat, which scientists have determined is closely related to overall health risk.  Even when factors like income, maternal education, and ethnicity were taken into account, the connection remained the same. However, the study found no specific “critical period” or age during which decreased sleep had a greater effect on obesity than other periods.

Hunger hormones and genes to blame?

Dr. Taveras speculates about several ways insufficient sleep could contribute to obesity.  One explanation is that disrupted sleep patterns can affect hormones that control hunger.  A past study found that hormones like ghrelin, the chemical that signals hunger to the brain, are increased during sleep deprivation.  Dr. Taveras also cited studies that suggest genetics play a role in the link between sleep and obesity.

Good sleep habits important for the whole family

Household routines and parental behavior near bedtime could also indirectly affect obesity. For example, children receiving insufficient sleep may spend more time in sedentary activities like watching television and snacking.  One researcher found that families that followed household routines like limited TV time and a set bedtime were associated with a 40% lower prevalence of obesity. While more research needs to be done, Dr. Taveras offered some guidelines for healthy child sleep habits:

“…right now we can recommend that clinicians teach young patients and their parents ways to get a better night’s sleep – including setting a consistent bedtime, limiting caffeinated beverages late in the day and cutting out high-tech distractions in the bedroom.

‘All of these help promote good sleep habits, which also may boost alertness for school or work, improve mood and enhance the overall quality of life.” Source

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Jessica Uno

I’m a medical student from California who loves chinchillas, horror, science fiction, and dance. I am a reformed night owl and am interested in psychiatry, neurology, and sleep medicine. I am immune to nightmares about ghosts, zombies, and monsters, but only because instead I dream about medical school.