Sleep-Deprived Children More Likely to Become Obese

July 8th 2016
Jennifer G. Allen
Jennifer G. Allen

Children who fail to get a full night's sleep are at increased risk for obesity, a recent investigation revealed.

Investigators conducted a meta-analysis of 13 studies involving more than 35,000 children and adolescents in the United States, Europe, Australia, and Canada from 2005 to 2013. The study published inObesity Research and Clinical Practicefound that being a “short sleeper”—or consistently getting less than the recommended amount of sleep—significantly increased youth’s future risk of becoming overweight or obese.

All studies employed multivariable analysis and data collected by questionnaires to assess sleep patterns. The authors noted that each country has its own definitions and cut-offs for sleep duration, overweight, and obesity. Nevertheless, a consistent pattern remained after controlling for those differences.

Children and adolescents who were considered short sleepers had a 72% greater risk of becoming overweight or obese later in life, compared with those who slept for longer durations.

“Weight gain appears to be a late consequence of short sleep duration,” the authors concluded.

For preschoolers (ages 3-5), the recommended amount of sleep per night is 10 to 13 hours. That number decreases to 9 to 11 hours for school-aged children (ages 6-13) and then narrows for adolescents (ages 14-18) to around 9 hours.

The importance of sleep for various health outcomes is well documented, but this analysis was the first to directly investigate the influence of sleep duration on key health indicators in children and adolescents.

Notably, the findings corroborate a study published in 2015 in theInternational Journal of Obesitythat showed children aged 5 years who are considered short sleepers are more likely to have an increased food response compared with children who get a sufficient amount of sleep. That association persisted even after controlling for birth weight, maternal education, age, and sex.

Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States. The prevalence of obesity has more than doubled in younger children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years, and the most recent data from the CDC indicate that approximately 17% (12.7 million) of children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years are obese. The total health care cost of obesity for all ages in America was $117 billion in 2000 alone.

The actionable takeaway for clinicians is 2-fold. First, they can educate parents about the risks of short sleep duration on children’s risk of becoming obese. For parents who have obese children, clinicians can let them know that sleep duration may have played a role, and then suggest better regulating sleeping patterns as part of their children’s obesity management plan.

“Sleep duration has been recognized as an easily amendable risk factor for obesity, [and] increasing sleep among children may play an important role in [the] prevention and treatment of obesity,” the researchers wrote.

Kathy Veenendaal, MSN, APN, FNP-BC,recently describedsome other actions clinicians can take.

“Clinicians play an integral role in educating patients and their parents or caregivers about the dangers of obesity and how to prevent it,” she wrote. “In fact, clinicians are sometimes the first to inform parents that their child is overweight or obese. At each and every visit, the first objective measure obtained is the height and weight of the child. Parents should be aware when their child’s BMI level is not appropriate for his or her age.”.

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