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Poor Sleep tied to Increased Risk of Obesity in Children

Update Date: May 19, 2014 09:26 AM EDT

A good night's rest is vital for overall health because sleep rejuvenates the body both mentally and physically. A new study examined the relationship between insufficient sleep and a child's risk of obesity. The research team from Massachusetts General Hospital for Children discovered that when young children consistently miss out on good sleep, they have a greater risk of becoming obese and end up having higher levels of body fat.

"Our study found convincing evidence that getting less than recommended amounts of sleep across early childhood is an independent and strong risk factor for obesity and adiposity," stated the lead author of the study, Elsie Taveras, MD, MPH, chief of General Pediatrics at the hospital. "Contrary to some published studies, we did not find a particular 'critical period' for the influence of sleep duration on weight gain. Instead, insufficient sleep at any time in early childhood had adverse effects."

For this study, the researchers examined data taken from Project Viva, which is a long-term project that followed the health of infants by tracking their physical health and sleeping patterns, which included nap times. The data on the children when they were six-months, three-years and seven-years-old were collected during in-person interviews with the children's mothers. Data on the children when they were aged one, two, four, five and six were collected through questionnaires. At the age of seven, the researchers measured the children's height, weight, abdominal fat, lean body moss, waist circumference and hip circumference.

The researchers defined curtailed sleep as having less than 12 hours per day for children between the ages of six-months and two years. For children between the ages of three and four and children between five and seven, chronic insufficient sleep was defined as having less than 10 and less than nine hours per day respectively. The team found that children who had the lowest sleep scores had higher body measurements that indicated obesity, such as abdominal fat. Children who had less sleep were more likely to be from low income households and were born to less educated mothers. The link between the two factors applied to all children regardless of age.

"While we need more trials to determine if improving sleep leads to reduced obesity," Taveras, who is also an associate professor of Pediatrics and Population Medicine at Harvard Medical School, said in the press release. "Right now we can recommend that clinicians teach young patients and their parents ways to get a better night's sleep - including setting a consistent bedtime, limiting caffeinated beverages late in the day and cutting out high-tech distractions in the bedroom. All of these help promote good sleep habits, which also may boost alertness for school or work, improve mood and enhance the overall quality of life."

The study was published in Pediatrics.

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