Sleep Loss And Fat Gain: The Link Between Two Childhood Epidemics

In my last post, I referenced new evidence confirming that children today suffer from a severe sleep loss compared to previous generations. One reason for concern is that new studies are showing how lack of adequate sleep in childhood leads to increases in body fat — which is a first step toward risk for type 2 diabetes (another related epidemic) as well as heart disease.

What’s especially troubling is that this process starts early in life. Two new studies have used longitudinal designs to show that short sleep (less than the minimum recommended amount of sleep for a given age) in toddlers leads to increases in body fat at age 7. In one report, consistently short sleepers at age 2 were shown to have a higher fat mass index (FMI) at age 7. Another paper showed similar findings linking short sleep at age 2 to increased Body Mass Index (BMI) at age 7 — the authors concluded that extending sleep by an additional hour per night would lead to a significant decrease in BMI reflecting a reduction in fat deposits. Importantly, both of these studies accounted for a number of confounding factors that could have skewed the results, suggesting direct links between sleep loss and fat gain.

Why is this information so important for parents? A third study has taken the research a step further by demonstrating that short sleep is linked with direct changes in body functioning, such as altered insulin levels, that signal early risk for type 2 diabetes. This report also suggested that inconsistent amounts of sleep from night to night was also bad for kids’ metabolism on top of the effects of short sleep. And there was one more important take-home message for parents:  a little catch-up sleep on the weekend was a good thing for kids and helped protect their bodies from the effects of short sleep.

As a parent, I know first-hand that regulating a child’s sleep is not easy (and sometimes becomes very hard). But putting as much effort into this as possible — especially in terms of making sure minimum sleep requirements are met consistently — can have an important positive effect on your child’s health and well-being.

In my next post, I will take on the issue of sleep methods, and provide a surprising perspective on how to determine the best sleep method for your child.

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