Children and teenagers, and their sleep patterns and bad sleep habits have been scrutinized by several research teams. There is some kind of relationship between obesity and insufficient sleep, which shows up especially in young teenage boys, but seems to affect other age groups and both genders to varying degrees, at different times. Theories have been put forward about exactly what’s going on.
It’s enough, for now, to know that there is some type of link between sleep deprivation and childhood obesity. In a way, the notion is counterintuitive. The stereotype of obese people as lazy or slothful would seem to imply more sleep, not less. It’s a mystery, and there is more work to be done before it will be understood. At least we know there is a relationship.
There is something else about the intersection of sleep deprivation and obesity. It’s called sleep apnea, or sleep-disordered breathing (SDB). Snoring and sleep apnea (ceasing to breathe for between five and 10 seconds, depending on whose definition is used) are both parts of the continuum of SDB.
Dr. Brandon Peters gives a capsule description:
As the amount of fat lining the airway grows, it may lead to crowding and narrowing within the airway. Alternatively, extra weight outside of the airway may apply pressure and lead to the airway collapse, resulting in apnea events.
Research in Italy established that obesity is associated with snoring in children, something that folk wisdom already knew, but these things need to be studied officially, of course. It does sound like another vicious cycle in the making: obesity causes sleep-disordered breathing, and then the disordered and disturbed sleep causes further obesity, and so on.
Sleep apnea is definitely dangerous, that much is known. As for the rest, the authors say,
How childhood obesity is associated with SDB and what contribution the breathing disorder might play in maintaining obesity and increasing the risk of comorbidities are still debated among researchers worldwide.
Even though all the science has not been traced to its roots, the consensus is that young humans need to get enough sleep. The wise parent will figure out how to ensure this. Good sleep should be a priority, not an afterthought.
Having a routine seems to be effective in a lot of homes, for a lot of kids. Brush the teeth, use the toilet, embrace the stuffed animal, listen to the story, lights out, sleep. Of course, once a child has been tucked in for the night, it helps if grownups are not heard arguing and throwing things in another room. Just sayin’.
All exhausted parents, desperate for some downtime, have noticed an obvious fact about exercise. Kids who are worn out from running around will sleep longer and more deeply. This is one of the many reasons why kids need exercise. It helps them sleep better, and kids who sleep better are less likely to be obese. It’s one of several indirect ways in which exercise works against obesity.
The good news is, getting enough sleep is one of the easiest, cheapest ways in the world to set a shining example for kids. The bad news is, it’s one of the hardest programs to carry out, because of human nature. As grownups, we seem to be driven by two motivations: get more work done and have more fun. Sleep deprivation is a habit that many adults are just not ready or willing to give up. Truly healthful sleep practices are the kind of behavior that a lot of adults, including parents, are not willing or able to model.
Parents can make a difference, and they/we must make a difference. Sorry, moms and dads and parental figures of all kinds, but once again it’s up to us. Like it or not, the responsibility and accountability are ours to shoulder. You’ve heard the expression, “Parenting is the hardest job in the world.” This is one of the reasons why.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “What Causes Sleep Apnea in Children?,” About.com: Sleep Disorders, 03/28/11
Source: “Sleep-disordered Breathing in Obese Children,” Medscape.com, 08/26/10
Image by treehouse1977 (Jim Champion), used under its Creative Commons license.