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Early childhood sleep helps determine obesity by age 7

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A very comprehensive study of childhood obesity and sleep has found that children who do not usually get enough sleep (less than the recommended hours) during infancy and early childhood gained overall body fat or became obese by age 7. Pediatrics, an official peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, published the results earlier this month.

“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,” says Elsie Taveras, MD, MPH, lead author, chief of General Pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, and associate professor of Pediatrics and Population Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “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.”

The investigation is considered one of the most comprehensive studies ever of the sleep-weight link. Information analyzed came from Project Viva, a long-term investigation of health impacts during pregnancy and after birth. Mothers gave in-person interviews when their children were around 6 months, 3 years and 7 years old, and completed questionnaires when the children were 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6. The study was supported by grants from the National Cancer Institute and Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

It found that children with the lowest sleep scores had the highest levels of every body measurement that reflects obesity and adiposity. These included abdominal fat, considered to be particularly hazardous. The association was consistent at all ages.

Interesting possible connections included poor ability to make good decisions on food choice, unhealthy eating behaviors caused by sleep deprivation, household routines leading to both reduced sleep and increased eating, and more opportunities to snack during sedentary activities like watching TV.

Dr. Taveras and her coauthors could make some clear recommendations from their work. “While we need more trials to determine if improving sleep leads to reduced obesity, 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 like video games 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.”

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