Keeping young children on a schedule—with consistent mealtimes, limited screen time, and especially a regular bedtime—may shield them from obesity as they get older, a new study has found.
Ohio State University’s Sarah Anderson, PhD, and colleagues from her own university and the United Kingdom, found a link between a lack of a routine and weight problems as children neared their teens. Consistent schedules appear to foster greater emotional self-regulation, and the effects last for years, according to the study published Monday in the International Journal of Obesity.
Scientists seeking answers for the global epidemics of diabetes and obesity have increasingly looked at sleep as a lifestyle factor that should be managed along with diet and exercise. Too little sleep, or rotating sleep schedules as seen in shift work, have been linked with weight gain and insulin resistance, putting those with interrupted sleep at risk of diabetes.
“Sleep is so important, and it’s important for children in particular,” Anderson said in a statement. “Research is increasingly finding connections between obesity and poor sleep.”
The Ohio State study is the first to examine connections between sleep schedules in early childhood and self-regulation, along with their links to obesity in older children. Researchers evaluated data from 10,955 children born between 2000 and 2002 who took part in a long-term study in the United Kingdom.
At age 3, 41% of the children always had a regular bedtime, 47% always had a regular mealtime, and 23% were limited to an hour or less of TV or videos. By age 11, 6.2% of the children were obese. The 3 household routines studied were all associated with greater emotional self-regulation, which was computed through parents’ responses to how much their children become frustrated or agitated. The less self-regulation, the more likely the children were to become obese.
“We saw that children who had the most difficulties with emotion regulation at age 3 also were more likely to be obese at age 11,” said Anderson, an associate professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health.
After controlling for socioeconomic differences, the researchers found that each unit on a scale measuring emotional self-regulation at age 3 increased the overall risk of obesity at age 11 by 38%.
Inconsistent bedtimes were an independent risk factor of obesity—Anderson and her colleagues found this factor was associated with an 87% increased overall risk of obesity by age 11. Differences arose even if a child’s bedtime was “usually” consistent, compared with “always” consistent.
“This research allows us to better understand how young children’s routines around sleep, meals, and screen time relate to their regulation of emotion and behavior,” Anderson said. Future work should examine the role of emotional self-regulation in obesity generally, and how bedtimes contribute to development, and policymakers should take note of these effects.
“As a society, we should consider what we can do to make it easier for parents to interact with their children in ways that support their own and their children’s health,” she said.
Anderson SE, Sacker A, Whitaker RC, Kelly Y. Self-regulation and household routines at age three and obesity at age eleven: Longitudinal analysis of the UK Millennium cohort study [published online April 24, 2017]. Int J Obes. 2017. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2017.94.