Parents, Kids, and Sleep (Part 1)

Bela sleeping

As it turns out, there are plenty of ways in which we, as parents, can help our children avoid or escape childhood obesity, and Childhood Obesity News has highlighted many of them. Of course, setting an example (a.k.a. “modeling” the desired behavior) is always the very best tool in the box. We’ll get back to that.

Among all the various research into childhood obesity and some promising leads, sleep has come to the forefront. In a way, this is problematic, because sleep is one of the areas of human consciousness that science knows the least about, including why we spend about a third of our already-too-short lives doing it.

Researcher Leslie A. Lytle, Ph.D., says,

Sleep has long been recognized as an important health behavior. We are just beginning to recognize its relationship to overweight and obesity in children and adults alike.

Dr. Lytle was quoted because she took part in the Seattle Children’s Research Institute study that collected data on 723 kids. This is one of the first studies to confirm a relationship between the duration of sleep and the BMI, and it’s pretty clear that insufficient sleep contributes to childhood and teen obesity.

Journalist Bill Hendrick of WebMD reported last year,

Kids who don’t get enough sleep are at increased risk of becoming overweight compared to those who slumber soundly… shorter sleep duration was related to higher body mass index and also to the percentage of body fat… And this may be especially true for boys…

April Fulton of the NPR’s Shots health blog elaborated on the significance of the report, which is based on the assumption that teenagers really need 8 ½ or 9 hours of solid sleep per night:

Although there’s plenty of research showing young children and adults who don’t get enough sleep are at risk for weight problems, there hasn’t been much done on adolescents.

So, younger teen boys are the ones mainly at risk for obesity related to not getting enough sleep. Strangely, lack of sleep does not have the same effect on girls of that age group.

Dr. Lytle suggests,

Maybe girls are better equipped to deal with environmental stress. They just biologically respond differently.

Insufficient sleep does not seem to immediately harm high-school kids, either, in the sense of being associated with an increased BMI. But then, when we grow into adulthood, sleep deprivation seems to start showing up as fat. Sooner or later it catches up with us, just like all the other ways we have of messing up our health.

Fulton puts it like this:

Another surprise — the sleep-weight relationship didn’t pan out once the kids hit high school, but seems to kick back in at adulthood… Over a lifetime, Lytle says, ‘We see a U-shaped curve.’

The year 2011 started out with more research on sleep and obesity, this time from the University of Chicago Medical Center. This study included 308 children, in a narrower age range (between 4 and 10), who were observed for a week.

According to Private Healthcare UK,

They discovered that all the children slept for an average of eight hours a night. However, those who had a BMI in the obese range slept for fewer hours and showed greater variability between weekend sleep time and school days sleep time… The researchers concluded: ‘Obese children were less likely to experience ‘catch-up’ sleep on weekends, and the combination of shorter sleep duration and more-variable sleep patterns was associated with adverse metabolic outcomes.’

The chemistry of this study had to do with levels of insulin, LDL cholesterol, and a certain protein, all of which are deemed worth further looking into. Then, in June, along came the American Academy of Pediatrics with a strong policy statement on “Children, Adolescents, Obesity, and the Media.”

Here is an exerpt:

Considerable research has shown that the media contribute to the development of child and adolescent obesity, although the exact mechanism remains unclear… late-night screen time may interfere with getting adequate amounts of sleep, which is a known risk factor for obesity… Pediatricians need to ask 2 questions about media use at every well-child or well-adolescent visit: (1) How much screen time is being spent per day? and (2) Is there a TV set or Internet connection in the child’s bedroom?

At the same time, the Institute of Medicine issued “Obesity Prevention Policies for Young Children,” which included these words:

In this report, the IOM recommends actions that healthcare professionals, caregivers, and policymakers can take to prevent obesity in children five and younger…. Caregivers also should limit young children’s screen time and ensure that children sleep an adequate amount each day.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Inadequate Sleep Linked to Kids’ Obesity,” WebMD, 05/04/10
Source: “Teens Who Sleep Less Gain More Weight, Study Finds,” NPR‘s Shots blog, 05/04/10
Source: “Childhood obesity ‘related to sleep patterns’,” Private Healthcare UK, 01/11
Source: “Policy Statement—Children, Adolescents, Obesity, and the Media,”, 06/23/11
Source: “Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Policies,” Institute of Medicine, 06/23/11
Image by willem! (Wim de Jong), used under its Creative Commons license.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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