Weighty matters: sleep and children

You’ve probably read the headlines: Americans are getting bigger.

And television shows like Biggest Loser and Mike and Molly add a pop culture component to our increasingly expanding dimensions.

Add children to the mix, however, and entertainment is replaced by seriousness.

Serious initiatives are advocated by some: schools banning certain foods, athletes encouraging kids to get out and play, surgeon generals and politicians launching wars on obesity, adult hues and cries of angst over the ill effects of video games, computers and a host of heavy factors all seemingly conspiring to ‘embiggen’ our nation’s youth.

But one thing mostly muted in the cacophony of calls to take action against childhood obesity is…sleep.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have provided yet another scientific link between sleep and obesity in children: kids who regularly get less than 8 hours of sleep consume more fats and carbohydrates than their well-rested cohorts. In addition, sleepless kids were twice as likely as their sleepmore peers to consume at least 450 calories a day from snack foods.

Obesity in children doesn’t happen overnight.  Or does it?

The findings provide a picture of the link between sleep and obesity that rests on small, incremental changes in behavior. The researchers conclude that short sleep duration may increase obesity risk by causing small changes in eating patterns that cumulatively alter energy balance.

Looked at another way, 450 calories is what it takes to create a little over one-tenth of a pound of weight. Consumed daily, as in the researcher’s findings, that’s enough energy to create about 36 pounds in the course of a year.

There are certainly many complicating factors—and opposing viewpoints–in addressing an issue like obesity in children–including exercise, genetic predispositions, diet, and family roles.

But raising awareness of the importance of regular, sufficient sleep to our kid’s health may be one simple thing we can all do.

School-age children need between 9-12 hours of sleep per night with younger children at the upper end and high schoolers edging down to the lower bound.

Need help in helping get kids to sleep?

Here are a few tips that may help (modify as appropriate for individual children and age). For a list of pointers specific to parents of teens, see this Sleep Foundation link:

  • Make bedtime a special time. At bedtime, spend some special time with your child. Be firm and go through a certain bedtime routine that your child is used to. At the end of that routine the lights go off and it is time to fall asleep.
  • Put some thought into finding your child’s ideal bedtime.  In the evening, look for the time when your child really is starting to slow down and getting physically tired. That’s the time that they should be going to sleep, so get their bedtime routine done and get them into bed before that time. If you wait beyond that time, then your child tends to get a second wind.  At that point they will become more difficult to handle, and will have a harder time falling asleep.
  • Keep to a regular daily routine—the same waking time, meal times, nap time and play times will help your child to feel secure and comfortable, and help with a smooth bedtime.  Children like to know what to expect.
  • Use a simple, regular bedtime routine.  It should not last too long and should take place primarily in the room where the child will sleep.  It may include a few simple, quiet activities, such as a light snack, bath, cuddling, saying goodnight, and a story or lullaby. The kinds of activities in the routine will depend on the child’s age.
  • Make routines location-independent. Make sure the sleep routines you use can be used anywhere, so you can help your child get to sleep wherever you may be.
  • Employ white noise. Some children are soothed by the sound of a fan running.  This “white noise” can block out the distraction of other sounds.
  • During the day matters. Make sure your kids have interesting and varied activities during the day, including physical activity and fresh air.
  • Use light to your advantage.  Keep lights dim in the evening as bedtime approaches.  In the morning, get your child into bright light, and, if possible, take them outside.  Light helps signal the brain into the right sleep-wake cycle.

Have an experience or thought to share about children and sleep? Please share it in our comments section.

3 thoughts on “Weighty matters: sleep and children”

  1. I always wonder about the direction of causality. Many reports assume that sleeping less contributes to the development of obesity. I’m wondering, though, might it be the other way around. Can obesity contribute to the development of obesity?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>