Infants who don’t sleep enough are at higher risk for being overweight in early childhood, says a new study from Harvard Medical School.
Researchers evaluated nearly 1,000 children at six months, one year and two years. At each visit, the babies’ weights and lengths were measured and parents were asked how many hours the child spent sleeping, as well as time spent watching TV or videos.
They concluded that the more sleep they got, the less likely the children were to be overweight at age 3. Babies who slept less than 12 hours daily were twice as likely to be overweight as their more rested counterparts; those who slept less than 12 hours and watched at least two hours of TV daily were six times as likely to be overweight.
"Instead of telling parents a specific number of hours as a goal, I emphasize optimizing the environment for sleep—routine bedtimes, routine locations, bedtime rituals at night," says Dr. Nanah Suk Park, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medical School. "When you have a conducive environment for sleep, most kids younger than 3 will sleep for more than 12 hours a day, including naps."
In terms of lack of sleep and how it might affect weight gain, research in adults has found that less sleep correlates to increased appetite. This hasn’t been tested in children, but some believe you’ll have more caloric intake if you are simply awake to eat.
Park believes the biggest contributing factor to babies’ and young children’s insufficient sleep is a lack of emphasis on a good sleep routine. She says a bedtime routine should include a bath, followed by reading a book or singing a lullaby with dimmed lights.
At the end of the routine, she says, "be loving but firm. It’s time to sleep. Be consistent or it will not work."
And, she says, keep your kids active during the day, including some fresh air.
"Sleep is important to everyone, not just infants and young children," says Park. "It can affect behavior, school or work performance, attention, mood. Parents and older siblings should be good role models and have good sleep routines as well. With this latest study we may have yet another reason to make sleeping a top priority."