Obesity and childhood sleep – is there a link?

Ann Caird, postnatal Doula and infant sleep consultant

Very probably, yes. There is a growing body of interesting research that strongly suggests links between night time sleep duration and the risk of overweight and obesity in children. Here’s a brief review of some relevant and thought provoking research.

Evelyne Touchette et al (2007) studied the associations between sleep patterns of young children and the effect on risk of overweight/obesity. After controlling for other factors that also affect weight, they found that the risk of overweight/obesity was 4 times higher for children aged between 2 ½ and 6 years who slept persistently less than 10 hours at night compared to those who persistently slept 11 hours at night. They concluded that sleeping less than 10 hours a night in early childhood significantly increases the risk of overweight/obesity in childhood. A further study  (Nixon et al )showed that 7 year olds who slept less than 9 hours at night were more likely to be overweight than those who slept longer than 9 hours.

Janice Bell and Fredrick Zimmerman’s recent longitudinal study found a strong longitudinal association between short sleep duration in early childhood (0-4 years) and childhood obesity 5 years later. Interestingly, they suggest a critical period where sleep duration may influence later childhood obesity risk prior to 5 years of age.

Considering older children now, Julie Lumbeng et al (2007) found that children with short sleep duration at 12 years of age were more likely to be overweight. While longer sleep duration at 9 years was associated with lower risk of overweight, short sleep duration at 9 years, irrespective of weight status, was associated with increased risk of overweight at 12 years. They also conclude that the time of sleep onset (earlier bedtime) is possibly the protective factor rather than wake times.

There are 2 possible explanations for the sleep duration/obesity link. First the biological explanation suggests hormone imbalance maybe responsible. Short sleep duration influences an increase in ghrelin levels and decrease in leptin levels. These hormones regulate appetite so the imbalance of these hormones may trigger increased hunger and appetite. Secondly life style factors may play a role; children who sleep less may have more time to consume extra calories and may be less likely to be physically active. However, more research is necessary in this area of childhood sleep.

You may be wondering about the role of naps in reducing obesity risks. Well, according to Bell and Zimmerman’s conclusions daytime naps are not a substitute for night time sleep when it comes to obesity prevention. Daytime sleep has different functions to night time sleep (see my recent nap post)

All in all then, ensuring your child gets enough sleep may well be a factor in helping to prevent overweight and obesity. Click here for a guide to baby and child sleep requirements.

Further reading:

Bell, J; and Zimmerman, F. Shortened Nighttime Sleep Duration in early Life and Subsequent Childhood Obesity. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine; 2012; 164(9): 840-845.

Lumeng, J; Somashekar D; Appugliese D; Kaciroti N; Corwyn RF; Bradley RH.  Shorter Sleep duration is associated with Increased Risk for Being overweight at ages 9 to 12 years. Pediatrics2007; 120;1020. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2006-3295.

Nixon GM; Thomson JMD; Han DY; Becroft DM; Clark PM; Robinson E; Waldie KE; Wild CJ; Black PN; Mitchell EA. Short Sleep Duration in Middle Childhood: Risk Factors and Consequences. Sleep. 2008; 31 (1); 71-78.

Touchette, E; Petit D; Tremblay RE; Bolvin M; Faslissard B; Genolini C; Montplaisir JY.  Associations between Sleep Duration Pattern and Overweight/Obesity at Age 6.  Sleep 2008;31 (11): 1507-1514


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