New Study Says Preschoolers Who Go to Bed After 8 p.m. Have Higher Risk for Obesity

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Bad news for budding night owls: Bedtimes for preschool children appear to be an important indicator of obesity risk later in life, a new study concluded.

Bad news for budding night owls: Bedtimes for preschool children appear to be an important indicator of obesity risk later in life, a new study concluded. The four year old kids studied were twice as likely to be obese as teenagers if they typically went to bed at 9 p.m. or later, research published in The Journal of Pediatrics suggests.

When researchers followed up with the 977 children at age 15 (on average), they found that while one in 10 kids who’d been put to bed by 8 p.m. or earlier was obese, the figure rose to 16 percent among kids who went to bed between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Among the children with bedtimes past 9, generally, 23 percent were obese by their mid-teens.

Although nationally, obesity rates among adults and kids have leveled off in recent years, the number of obese Americans rose significantly between the 1960s and 1990s; today, more than one-third of Americans are considered obese. And Indiana has the seventh highest obesity rate in the country; currently 32 percent of adults are obese, a sharp rise from 1990 figures, which indicated that 13.3 percent of adults in Indiana were obese. Among 14 to 17 year olds, the obesity rate is just above 14 percent statewide – a little lower than the national figure of 17 percent for obesity in this age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Because obesity is associated with a higher risk for health complications such as diabetes and heart disease, anything that appears to increase the risk for it is worth paying attention to, says Michael McKenna, a general pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. But although this study is a reminder of some of the potential benefits of adequate sleep for kids, parents should consider the broader significance of the researchers’ results. “It’s important to set limits for kids, and regular bedtimes are part of getting kids to think about making healthy choices in their lives,” explains Dr. McKenna.

To avoid overstating the significance of the correlation between bedtimes and obesity, the study authors tried to get a more thorough picture of participants’ parenting style by watching mothers interact with their children. Researchers measured maternal sensitivity by looking at moms’ apparent respect for their children’s autonomy and levels of hostility, they wrote in their paper. No matter the relationship between parent and child, however, the authors reported a strong correlation between later bedtimes and increased obesity risk.

Regular sleep times are part of good sleep hygiene, which studies suggest is an important aspect of good health, so there’s no question that a consistent bedtime routine benefits kids. However, parents are better off focusing on establishing healthy schedules for children that show you care rather than obsessing that their being up a few minutes past 8 p.m. might damage their health, Dr. McKenna says. Most kids have difficulty with transitions, he says, so it’s helpful to give them cues to help them adjust to bedtime every night, whether it’s a bath, a story read to them or a glass of warm milk.

“There’s no one right way to parent,” Dr. McKenna says. “But giving structure to their world is what kids really need – it helps them see someone cares and is paying attention to them. Establishing a regular bedtime is one way to do that.”

-- By Virginia Pelley

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