When children go to bed early, they're far less likely to become obese as teenagers

sleeping little boy
CC BY 2.0 Amanda Truss

Need some encouragement at enforcing early bedtimes? A new study from Ohio State University links a child's hour of bedtime to the likelihood of weight gain down the road.

Readers of TreeHugger may already know that I’m a strong advocate for early bedtimes. My kids are in bed, lights out, by 7 p.m. each night, even if the sun is still shining outside. Sometimes they fall asleep right away; other times, they hang out in their bunk beds and talk about the day until they drift off an hour later. I don’t feel bad about this. It’s a routine we’ve established from an early age and it allows me the alone time I crave in the evenings.

There are a lot of people who disagree with my approach and whose comments on my previous articles on this topic make it sound like I’m abusing my children by not actively entertaining them all evening. I profoundly disagree. In fact, I believe I’m doing my kids a favor by instilling such predictable sleep habits and ensuring they receive nearly 12 hours of sleep each night.

A new study from the Ohio State University Medical Center supports my approach with research showing that young children who go to bed at 8 p.m. or earlier are far less likely to become obese as teenagers than if they go to bed at 9 p.m. or later.

The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Pediatrics, spanned one decade and looked at the bedtime and sleep routines of nearly 1,000 American children. Lead author Sarah Anderson and her colleagues divided the evening into 3 bedtime categories: 8 p.m. or earlier, 8 to 9 p.m., and 9 p.m. or later. Mothers reported their children’s average bedtimes at age 4½ years, then again at age 15.

EurekAlert reports:

“They found a striking difference: Only 1 in 10 of the children with the earliest bedtimes were obese teens, compared to 16 percent of children with mid­range bedtimes and 23 percent of those who went to bed latest. Half the kids in the study fell into the middle category. A quarter had early bedtimes and another quarter went to bed late.”

In other words, a post-9 p.m. bedtime appears to double a child’s risk of obesity down the road. Why? Dr. Meena Khan from Ohio State University Medical Center suggests that kids are affected by the ways in which they entertain themselves later at night – eating additional food, often high-calorie snacks, watching TV or using tablets, experiencing metabolism and hormonal disruptions that can lead to obesity.

The emotional climate at home also has a subtle effect. When mothers are more sensitive, i.e. showing support for their kids, lacking hostility, respecting the child’s autonomy, bedtime goes more smoothly and kids can get settled earlier and more effectively. This finding did not change the outcome of the study, however:

“Regardless of the quality of the maternal­-child relationship, there was a strong link between bedtimes and obesity, the researchers found. But the children who went to bed latest and whose moms had the lowest sensitivity scores faced the highest obesity risk. The researchers also found that later bedtimes were more common in children who were not white, whose moms had less education and who lived in lower-­income households.”

It’s an interesting study that provides a concrete solution for parents to fight obesity, currently a tremendous health concern in the United States. With 17 percent (12.7 million) of American children and teens considered obese, parents would do well to embrace these findings and implement change – as much as can reasonably be expected, based on families’ unique schedules – in hopes of a better, healthier future for their kids.

Sure, it may require cutting events out of one’s social life and saying no to extra-curricular activities, but in the name of health, that shouldn’t be such a bad thing. And just think – as a parent, it frees up several hours of time to be alone, to recharge, to connect with a partner, and, most importantly, get to bed at a reasonable hour, too.

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