Parents’ Sleep Habits Might Contribute to Obesity in Kids, Here’s How to Fix It

Chained up children's tricycle bike.

Several connections between sleeping and weight have been established in recent research, and one new study says parents’ sleep habits may even play a role in childhood obesity.

When we think about weight and obesity, the first thing that comes to mind is often diet or activity levels. It seems sensible that what we eat and how much exercise we get would be the most important factors in maintaining a healthy body weight.

However, there’s a third factor that science is beginning to look into: sleep. In recent years, research has identified that people who have better sleep habits also tend to have healthier body weights.

In one of the latest studies, scientists also found that parental habits can even affect weight in children. Read on to learn more about sleep and obesity in kids and see what science has to say about connections between rest and weight.

Study Finds Connections Between Parental Sleep Habits and Childhood Obesity

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published a study in April, 2014 analyzing the nightly schedules of over 330 families. The study sought to determine which family habits were associated with healthy versus overweight children.

Factors studied included family sleep duration, dining habits, television habits, and whether or not children had televisions in their rooms. Data on family routines was compared to children’s weights to see which factors were most closely associated with health.

Here’s an overview of what they found:

  • Kids that got less than 7 hours of sleep were 3 times more likely to be overweight.
  • Kids of parents who get less than 7 hours of sleep were 1.3 times more likely to be overweight.

Why did parents’ sleep schedules affect kids?

Researchers in this study only looked at correlations (as opposed to causation), but the author suggests that when parents do not get enough sleep, it likely disrupts the household.

This can lead to rushing dinner, making less healthy food choices, and being too fatigued to exercise, all of which could contribute to higher body weight. Exhausted kids are also more likely to crave sugary and fatty foods, which can further affect metabolism and energy levels.

Sleep & Weight: Overview of Recent Research

Sleep remains a popular research topic, and several recent studies have examined ways that rest might affect weight and contribute to obesity.

Household Routines and Childhood Obesity

In addition the University of Illinois study, another 2010 study published in the Pediatrics journal also looked at bedtime routines of over 8,500 children, with similar findings regarding childhood obesity.

Kids whose regular routines included eating dinner with their families, getting enough sleep, and limited screen-viewing had 40 percent lower rates of obesity versus the group whose routines did not include these habits.

Short Sleep in Infants Linked with Higher Childhood Obesity

Project Viva researchers studied over 900 U.S. children and found that infants who got less than 12 hours of sleep per night were twice as likely to be obese by age 3, compared to infants that averaged more than 12 hours of rest.

In a subsequent Project Viva study, factors linked with short sleep duration in infants included maternal depression, infant television viewing, and incorporating solid foods before 4 months. They also found that increased maternal weight gain during pregnancy was associated with heavier child weights at 3 years.

Short Sleep in Children & Adults Linked with Higher Weight & Obesity

A long-term New Zealand study of over 1,000 people found that shorter sleep in childhood was associated with greater chance of obesity at age 32. For each hour fewer that people slept as children, they were 50 percent more likely to be obese at 32 years.

A large-scale study of 68,000 middle-aged American nurses found that those who slept less than five hours per night were 15 percent more likely to become obese during the multi-year study, compared to those who slept seven or more hours.

A review of 36 published studies by researchers at the Western Reserve University concluded that studies showed a strong link between short sleep duration and current and future obesity in children. Links were also found between short sleep in adults and increased current and future weight.

Although it’s not yet known exactly how sleep affects weight, the WRU researchers looked at the existing research to draw conclusions. They speculate that two mechanisms potentially work together in sleep deprived people to increase weight:

  • Caloric intake increases as hunger hormones are altered and people have more waking hours to eat.
  • Energy expenditure decreases as body temperatures drop and people feel more fatigued.
Timex alarm clock set to 2:38
Photo by Sonja Langford

Regular Sleep Schedule Linked with Lower BMI

A 2012 Brigham Young University study of 330 young women found that inconsistent sleep patterns were associated with higher body fat. Women who had regular bedtimes and wake times were more likely to have lower body fat than women whose sleep patterns varied more than 60 minutes over a seven day period.

Sleep duration between eight hours and 8.5 hours was also associated with healthier body weights versus shorter or longer durations.

Rushing Meals Can Lead to Weight Gain

A large-scale Japanese study of over 3,200 adults found how people eat might also affect weight. Participants that ate quickly and ate until full, both consumed more calories and had higher body mass index measures. Researchers estimated that quick eaters had 3 times higher risk of obesity.

This supports the idea that rushed night time meals could contribute to higher weight in children over time, and makes a case for leisurely family dinners as other researchers have suggested.

Sleep Deprivation Increases Cravings for Sugar & Fat

Another recent study comes from University of California-Berkeley researchers, who examined food choice of teenagers when well-rested versus sleep-deprived. They found that brain activity of sleep-deprived teens showed greater cravings for high-calorie junk foods.

Other research has found that sleep deprivation increases cravings for sugar, salt, and high-fat foods, and that people who don’t get enough sleep consume more calories the next day.

Researchers have also found the sleep loss affects the body’s appetite mechanisms by altering hunger hormones and boosting molecules that make eating feel rewarding.

What You Can Do

If you are a parent or simply trying to keep yourself healthy, practicing good sleep hygiene is important. Sleep hygiene is the study of how people can get better rest by making changes to their environment and routines. Here are some expert snooze tips for both kiddos and adults.

Sleep Hygiene for Kids

1. Make sure children get enough sleep.

Kids (even teens) need far more sleep than us adults, so be sure to factor that into your family’s nighttime schedule. The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following guidelines for sleep times by age group:

AgeSleep Needs
Newborns15-18 hours
1-12 months14-15 hours
1-3 years12-14 hours
3-6 years11-13 hours
7-12 years10-11 hours
12-18 years8-10 hours
Adults7-9 hours

2. Set the environment for rest.

A comfortable sleep environment for most people is dark, quiet, cool, and supportive, and the same goes for kids.

Rooms should be dark with exception of a small night light, if needed. Depending on your child’s preference, you could keep it quiet or play calming white noise or nature sounds.

The temperature should also be comfortably cool, and their mattresses should be in good shape and comfortable to them. Kids with allergies and asthma may get rest easier with extra precautions like allergen-proof mattress covers and more frequent dusting and washing of bed linens.

3. Try to stick to nighttime routine.

While few things go as planned with kids involved, try your best to stick to a regular nighttime pattern from infancy so they know what to expect.

Regular sleep wake times are also associated with healthier weight, and fewer sleep issues as well. Your routine should limit electronics and TV in the hour before bed, but reading and other less-stimulating activities are good idea to help kids wind down.

Many experts suggest setting firm bed times and limits that are consistently enforced, so kids know that lights out means time to sleep.

4. Eat together.

Two dogs eating in the grass
Photo by Noel Lopez

Try to eat dinner together as a family whenever possible. A study from Rutgers University found that kids who dine with parents eat less junk and more fresh fruits and veggies, resulting in a lower BMI (body mass index).

5. Get them moving during the day.

Activity is an important component of quality rest, and kids have a lot of energy to burn. Try to incorporate daily exercise or activity into their routine, either in school programs or at home.

You could even get active as a family by taking a bike ride, taking the dog for walk, playing at the park, or playing backyard sports. When stuck indoors, try an action-oriented video game or a fun exercise video.

6. Limit caffeine.

Caffeine is the enemy of parents trying to put kids to sleep. It can keep them wired for several hours, leaving kids extra tired the next day. Limit caffeinated sodas and teas, especially after lunch time. Other things like chocolate also contain sneaky stimulants which can affect sleep.

7. Limit screen time.

A study from Brown University of 495 fourth-graders found that the more time children spent watching TV, the worse sleep habits they had. Kids who watched TV closed to bed were more likely to resist sleep, more likely to have anxiety and slept less overall.

Other studies have found that frightening and anxiety-inducing things kids see in TV shows and movies can translate into bad dreams, and that increased TV viewing is associated with increased risk of sleep problems, both in childhood and later in adulthood.

Barbara H. Fiese, author of the University of Illinois study, suggests keeping television time under 2 hours per day, and turning devices off at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Many experts also say children should never have televisions in their bedrooms, as this is particularly associated with less rest.

Healthy Rest for Parents

Healthy sleep hygiene for parents includes many similar tenants. Adults also need to set aside enough time for adequate rest every night. We also benefit from regular sleep-wake times, limiting caffeine in the afternoon and evening, and from keeping electronics out of the bedroom.

Studies have also found that regular exercise boosts sleep in adults, and the practicing healthy rest habits and getting enough rest is associated with healthier minds, reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes, and healthier body weights.

Parents have a million things to worry about when it comes to kids, but sleep doesn’t have to be one of them. Introduce good habits early to children, and model good sleep hygiene yourself to show the importance of rest.

By making sleep a priority for yourself as a parent, you set a good example, keep yourself healthy, and keep your kids healthier as well.

How do you practice healthy sleep habits at home? Do you find that your kids mimic your sleeping habits? How do they sleep compared to you?

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also enjoy How to Reduce Your Family’s Carbon Footprint or 7 Common Sleep Myths Debunked By Science.

Amerisleep: Enjoy the morning you've dreamed of.

Rosie Osmun

Rosie is the Creative Content Manager and resident writer at Amerisleep. She finds the science of sleep fascinating and loves researching and writing about beds as an ambassador of the Amerisleep brand. Her favorite mattress is the ultra-plush Liberty Bed, and she is also passionate about traveling, painting, languages and history.