Kids, Sleep, and Obesity

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From toddlers to teens, when kids don’t get enough sleep, they’re cranky, whiny, and difficult. Of course, adequate sleep has many other benefits for children. Chief among these is the role that sleep plays in obesity prevention.

Sleep and Health:

Kids who get enough sleep on a regular basis have improved…

  • Attention
  • Behavior
  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Emotional regulation
  • Quality of life
  • Mental health
  • Physical health (including obesity)

Source: American Academy of Sleep Medicine

Hours of Sleep and Obesity:

Research shows that kids who sleep less at night are twice as likely to be overweight or obese compared to those who sleep longer (1). Teens who got less sleep had greater increases in Body Mass Index (BMI) between the ages of 14 and 18, particularly those who started out with higher than average BMIs (2).

Hours of Sleep and Dietary Intake:

Less sleep may impact children’s food choices. For Danish 8-11 year olds, one hour less sleep was associated with a higher intake of added sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages (3). Five year olds with shorter sleep duration rated higher in “food responsiveness,” which reflects the urge to eat when you see, smell, or taste palatable food (4). A small study found that when teens were allowed to sleep only 6.5 hours per night, they ranked sweet/dessert foods as more appealing and ate more servings of these foods than when they slept 10 hours per night (5).

Bedtime and Obesity:

Late bedtime, regardless of sleep duration, appears to contribute to children’s risk of obesity. Preschoolers with early weekday bedtimes (at or before 8 p.m.) were half as likely as those with late bedtimes (past 9 p.m.) to be obese as adolescents (6).

How Much Sleep do Kids Need?

  • Age 1-2 years: 11 to 14 hours
  • Age 3-5 years: 10 to 13 hours
  • Age 6-12 years: 9 to 12 hours
  • Age 13-18 years: 8 to 10 hours

Source: American Academy of Sleep Medicine

Electronic Devices and Sleep:

A large study of Canadian fifth-graders found that nighttime use of and access to electronic devices was associated with shorter sleep duration, excess body weight, poor diet quality, and lower physical activity levels (7).

Parental Rules and Sleep:

Researchers found that three year olds whose parents set rules about sleep, diet, and TV time slept longer at night. TV and dietary rules were also associated with leaner body composition (8).

The Bottom Line:

Parents can give their children the edge in obesity prevention by:

  • Establishing an early bedtime, and sticking to it on weekdays and weekends.
  • Keeping electronic devices out of the bedroom. (Hint: turn off the wi-fi at night and keep everyone’s phones in one location at bedtime).
  • Setting a good example by showing your kids that a good night’s sleep is important for everyone.

By Hollis Bass, MEd, RD, LD


1. Fatima Y, Doi SAR, Mamun AA. Longitudinal impact of sleep on overweight and obesity in children and adolescents: a systematic review and bias-adjusted meta-analysis. Obes Rev. 2015;16(2):137–149. doi: 10.1111/obr.12245.

2. Mitchell JA, Rodriguez D, Schmitz KH, Audrain-McGovern J. Sleep Duration and Adolescent Obesity. Pediatrics. 2013;131(5):e1428-e1434. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-2368.

3. Hjorth MF, Quist JS, Andersen R, et al. Change in sleep duration and proposed dietary risk factors for obesity in Danish school children. Pediatr Obes. 2014;9(6):e156–e159. doi: 10.1111/ijpo.264.

4. McDonald L, Wardle J, Llewellyn CH, Fisher A. Nighttime sleep duration and hedonic eating in childhood. Int J Obes. 2015;39(10):1463-1466. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2015.132.

5. Simon SL, Field J, Miller LE, DiFrancesco M, Beebe DW. Sweet/dessert foods are more appealing to adolescents after sleep restriction. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(2):e0115434. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0115434.

6. Anderson SE, Andridge R, Whitaker RC. Bedtime in preschool-aged children and risk for adolescent obesity. J Pediatr. online July 2016, doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2016.06.005. [Epub ahead of print]

7. Chahal H, Fung C, Kuhle S, Veugelers PJ. Availability and night-time use of electronic entertainment and communication devices are associated with short sleep duration and obesity among Canadian children. Pediatr Obes. 2013;8(1):42-51. doi: 10.1111/j.2047-6310.2012.00085.x

8. Jones CHD, Pollard TM, Summerbell CD, Ball H. Could parental rules play a role in the association between short sleep and obesity in young children? J Biosoc Sci. 2014;46(3):405-418. doi: 10.1017/S0021932013000291.

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