September 6th, 2010
04:15 PM ET

Study: Lack of sleep for babies and toddlers may increase obesity risk

Babies and children under the age of 5 getting less than 10 hours of sleep at night are more likely to be overweight or obese five years later, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that insufficient sleep at night may be a lasting risk factor for obesity later in life and that napping cannot replace the benefits of nighttime sleep," according to a study published Monday in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

"This is something we may be able to change to address the growing obesity problem," said study author Dr. Janice Bell from the University of Washington.

Her study analyzed data taken from a nationwide survey in 1997 and 2002.

Bell found that babies and children up to age 4 who didn’t sleep enough at night were "80 percent more likely to be obese [five years later] compared to other[s] who had long sleep."  However, she did not see the same link to obesity when older children (between the ages of 5 and 13) burned the midnight oil.

Bell believes this is the first large, nationally representative study to suggest lack of sleep contributes to obesity in children, something that’s long been believed for adults. She says this research needs to be corroborated by other studies.

The study authors also said napping is not a substitute for sleeping at night because day and nighttime sleep serve different functions.

For example, naps may help reduce stress and help a child be more alert to learn, while nighttime sleep involves "complex biological, psychological and restorative functions."

If children are getting less than 10 hours of sleep at night they are well below the CDC sleep recommendations, which suggest,  for example, that a 1-year old baby should sleep 13-15 hours at night and 3-5 year-olds need 11-13 hours of nighttime sleep.

The authors note that unlike other studies, their research did not find a difference in ethnic or social status among the children.

Pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu said this study "gives parents one more reason to prioritize healthy sleeping habits in their young children’s lives." She said it's not entirely clear why lack of nighttime sleep contributes to weight gain, but some experts suggest that the more time a child spends awake, the more time it has to eat. Another theory suggests children who are less rested are too tired to exercise vigorously.

"Regardless of the reasons involved, however, repeated studies suggest that children benefit from more sleep, not less, so parents should remember to consider sufficient sleep as part of their child's overall health and well-being," Shu said.

Dr. Melina Jampolis , a physician and diet and fitness expert practicing in San Francisco and Los Angeles, also said it isn’t exactly clear why nighttime sleep is so important, but, "we know in adults that shortened sleep duration is associated with changes in substances [or hormones] like ghrelin and leptin, which can increase hunger, decrease metabolism, and lead to insulin resistance."

Although she's not a pediatrician or sleep expert, Jampolis recommends some of the same suggestions for helping toddlers get to sleep as she gives to adults:

1. Stick to a schedule
2. Build an optimal sleep environment [low noise & light]
3. Limit TV (videos) before bed (could over-stimulate the child)

soundoff (125 Responses)
  1. Pirogi

    This study is frustrating. It was a retrospective study based on survey responses, and no more proves that lack of sleep CAUSES overweight/obesity than I am the easter bunny.

    1. You don't "make" a child sleep. Creating a sleep-friendly atmosphere is about all you can do. Babies can, and will, refuse to sleep or wake up for any reason, or no reason at all. This is a biological reality. It's a farce that infants and adults have identical sleep regulatory mechanisms.
    2. Our society has highly charged emotional attachment to getting a child to "sleep through the night." Some parents value this ideal so highly that they will "sleep train" an infant by letting them "cry it out" instead of comforting them. On the other end of the spectrum are the parents who refuse to let their babies cry it out, co-sleep, and give the first category of parents the stink eye over it. Many American parents must or choose to work, causing them to do whatever they can to get adequate sleep to function at their jobs. Based on this social reality, I would be very wary of the results of a survey over whose baby sleeps and whose doesn't.
    3. Even if the survey results were correct, they only show that in families where children don't sleep "enough," they are more likely to become overweight/obese. These families may have overweight parents, poor eating habits, poor exercise habits, other poor lifestyle choices. Until we can design a prospective, controlled study that controls for other factors that come into play, we can't be sure WHAT is causing overweight/obese kids.
    4. Message of this study: MAKE SURE YOUR KID SLEEPS!! DO WHATEVER IT TAKES!! OTHERWISE THEY WILL BE FAT!! Really? Don't we have enough parenting guilt already?

    September 7, 2010 at 12:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Hazelnut

    I read another article today stating that weight problems may begin in the womb. http://www.stltoday.com/news/national/article_67d2ca9a-ba10-11df-bda9-0017a4a78c22.html?mode=story
    Honestly, I think people are less physically active than they used to be and eat for pleasure more than for nutrition. Not to say that this applies to all overweight people, but probably the majority.

    September 7, 2010 at 13:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. MartyK

    There's abundant evidence that the growth in childhood obesity has much more to do with the rampant marketing of junky foods to children. "Studies" like this make very little sense except to act as a further distraction away from these facts. http://organicconnectmag.com/wp/2010/05/david-s-ludwig-md-phd-ending-the-childhood-obesity-epidemic/

    September 7, 2010 at 13:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Drewzicle

    Lions sleep 20 hours per day. I guess that's why we don't see any fat lions.

    September 7, 2010 at 14:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Jules

    I wonder how many of the kids not getting enough sleep are also put to bed with a tv on in the room (I know a surprising number of parents that do this). And its pretty obvious that if you don't put your young children to bed at a reasonable hour or are not capable of keeping them on a basic sleep schedule, you probably aren't working too hard to keep their nutritional needs met correctly. Lazy parents have lazy kids. News at a 11.

    September 7, 2010 at 14:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Duke Stenson

    You spent roughly 3 hours of your day on the internet responding to comments on a story regarding the sleep habits of babies...I don't think you get to call other people "yahoos"

    September 7, 2010 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Suzi

    I think the link between sleep and overweight children needs to be studied a little more than just what has been stated here. Do tired kids eat more? Maybe, but no mention of that here. I think a lot of people that responded to this article are making more valid points, unplug the TV and the phones and get outside and get moving. Yes my 3 year old does get 11 hours of sleep at night, we were nutty about sleep and so she has always been guided by routine and even on vacation and overnights she still followed the same routine. Will this routine somehow keep her from being overweight? In my head I don't see how it adds up, but I'm not going to assume it, she eats healthy snacks, we limit television time to 1 hour a day and if the sun is shining we are outside. I think kids need sleep and I completely agree with the CDC's recommendations, and yes those are total times with naps, but I don't see how weight get's involved. Poorly written and easily disputed article.

    September 7, 2010 at 17:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. nonesuch

    Does it take YOU three hours to write comments like yours, dear? My condolences on your mental retardation.

    September 7, 2010 at 21:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Naomi

    This article is WRONG! please see the correct information in this link. Infants are supposed to sleep at least 10 NOT 13 hrs. The writer of the article should retract and edit!!!

    September 8, 2010 at 08:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Marsha Podd

    I tend to agree with Dr. Shu here. I work with new parents and babies. I find that we are a culture who has, for many years, practiced feeding children to sleep. This is an unhealthy sleep cue that reinforces EAT to reduce frustration and anxiety. Once babies become about 4 to 6 months old and the teeth begin to erupt, I think Mother Nature is telling us it is time to switch gears. Baby no longer needs milk at night. Children wake frequently at night. The good sleepers who learn to fall asleep independently without milk as young babies, learn to easily return to sleep. The poor sleepers are usually feeders who turn to milk or other food to fall back asleep which keeps the body at a more active and awake level. This inhibits good sleep patterns and continues to show up as a habit later in life.

    September 12, 2010 at 10:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Sandra

    This is something we may be able to change to address the growing obesity problem. Regardless of the reasons involved, however, repeated studies suggest that children benefit from more sleep, not less, so parents should remember to consider sufficient sleep as part of their child's overall health and well-being

    October 23, 2010 at 01:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Stacy McNamara

    OK I really don't have any difficulties with my going for a snooze but thank you for posting this, fascinating read

    November 4, 2010 at 14:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Chassidy

    This cross sectional study aimed to see whether sleep restriction in children could affect brain activity in a similar way to adults, and whether this may have an effect on brain development.

    December 27, 2020 at 09:17 | Report abuse | Reply
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