COLUMBUS, Ohio — They’re two of the most dreaded words for young children, but potentially among the most important: It’s bedtime! A recent study shows that keeping a regular schedule when it comes to sleep (and other daily routines) may help young children regulate their emotions, and consequently, avoid obesity later in childhood.
Researchers from the Ohio State University say that family-enforced structures combined with limited screen time lowered a preschooler’s chances of packing on unhealthy pounds as they aged.
“This study provides more evidence that routines for preschool-aged children are associated with their healthy development and could reduce the likelihood that these children will be obese,” says lead author Sarah Anderson in a university release.
Researchers focused on three common household routines when children were three years old: a regular bedtime, a consistent mealtime, and whether or not parents limited television, computer, and other device time. Using the international criteria for obesity (the US criteria is lower, producing more obese children), the researchers examined how these routines affected obesity rates in children by the time they were 11 years old.
Included in this research were nearly 11,000 children who participated in the Millennium Cohort Study, a long-term survey of a diverse range of children born in the United Kingdom between 2000 and 2002. Overall, at age three, 41 percent of these children had regular bedtimes, 47 percent had a regular mealtime, and 23 percent had limitations on screen time. By age 11, six percent of the children surveyed were 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,” says Anderson.
The reason the researchers focused on screen time, mealtimes, and bedtimes was because these three routines were associated with better emotional regulation, that is, how often a child becomes overwhelmed with frustration, excitement, anger, etc. Though the study couldn’t prove that regular bedtime would ensure a healthier outcome, Anderson says enforcing the routine could bring about numerous benefits.
“Recommending regular bedtime routines is unlikely to cause harm, and may help children in other ways, such as through emotion regulation,” she explains.
Anderson and her team found that bedtime alone was an independent predictor of obesity by age 11.
“Sleep is so important and it’s important for children in particular. Although there is much that remains unknown about how sleep impacts metabolism, research is increasingly finding connections between obesity and poor sleep,” she says.
The researchers hope that more research in this area will reveal the role of emotional regulation and bedtime routines in weight gain in children.
The full study was published in The International Journal of Obesity.