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Researchers studied the bedtime habits of more than 100 children in Sweden enrolled in an obesity-prevention project. They used trackers worn on the wrist to measure the kids' sleep patterns for one week every year between the ages of 2 and 6.
Kids who didn't get the recommended amount of sleep (between 10 and 14 hours for every 24-hour period for this age group) were at higher risk of becoming overweight than kids who did get adequate sleep. Several other studies of both children and adults have resulted in similar findings.
Moreover, this study found that, even among kids who got the same amount of sleep, those who went to bed after 9 p.m. had a higher body mass index by the time the study finished than kids who went to bed earlier.
That doesn't necessarily mean you need to make your preschooler go to bed before 9 p.m. if he doesn't already. The study shows that late bedtimes are associated with obesity risk, not that one causes the other.
Claude Marcus, an author of the study and a professor of pediatrics at Sweden's Karolinska Institute, told CNN that going to bed late may simply be a sign that a child's family environment is more chaotic. Irregular sleep patterns may be driving the increased obesity risk, not the actual time children go to bed, he explained.
Marcus pointed out that in some places, such as Spain and parts of Asia, children regularly go to bed after 9 p.m.
The study was small and involved mostly Caucasian children. It's difficult to know whether the findings would be the same if the study were larger or included a more diverse population, such as that of the United States. The researchers did measure the children's sleep patterns objectively, using trackers rather than relying on parents to report the information themselves, as some previous studies have done. That lends weight to the study's findings.
Almost 1 in 5 children and teens in the United States are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity is even more common among Hispanic and African American children. Helping kids maintain a healthy weight early on can reduce their chances of suffering obesity-related health issues later in life.
Sleep is just one contributor to obesity risk. In a commentary accompanying the latest research, pediatric endocrinologists Nicole Glaser and Dennis Styne pointed out that other factors influence obesity risk in children including inadequate exercise and too much screen time.
If you're struggling to get your child on a regular sleep schedule, here's some advice on establishing healthy sleep habits in young children and on sleep aids for toddlers. You may also find it helpful to check the average sleep and nap needs for children by age.
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