WHY is one in four Irish schoolchildren overweight or obese? Poor diet. Tick. Lack of exercise. Tick. Lack of sleep. Tick.
Lack of sleep? Parents are unlikely to make a connection between sleep — or rather the lack of it — and obesity, but the latest research consistently points to the fact that children who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to gain weight.
International study after international study has shown that children who sleep fewer than 11 hours a night are 58% more at risk of being overweight or obese than those who sleep for an hour more.
Now a new safefood campaign highlighting the importance of a good night’s sleep is urging parents to make bedrooms screen-free zones.
“Parents think their children are getting enough sleep, but the reality is they’re probably not,” explains Dr Fiona Healy, consultant paediatrician at Temple Street Children’s University Hospital.
She says parents often don’t realise just how much sleep a child needs — a baby needs about 17 hours a day and schoolchildren need 10 to 12 hours a night.
When children don’t get enough sleep, they are tired during the day and less likely to exercise. However, the link between lack of sleep and obesity is more complicated than that.
Poor sleep can play havoc with the hormones that regulate appetite, which means an under-slept child will seek out calorie-dense foods with few nutrients.
Sleep loss stimulates the production of ghrelin, which makes one feel hungry, while reducing the production of leptin, which suppresses appetite. And, it follows, if a child is awake for longer it is more likely to graze on food. Lack of sleep also disrupts human growth hormones.
Dr Healy, who specialises in respiratory conditions, has seen an alarming rise in the number of children with weight issues due to a lack of sleep.
Five years ago, 11 or 12 children were being treated at Temple Street Hospital for obstructive sleep apnea, a condition caused by excess weight (increased fat deposits in a child’s neck obstruct the airways causing oxygen levels to drop). That number has now increased eightfold.
Parents can be slow to diagnose sleep issues, Dr Healy explains. Children might be having difficulties at school or it might appear that they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Others present with cardiac complications.
Dr Healy says she now has 80 children on nighttime ventilation for sleep apnea.
For some of these children, using ventilation is easier than losing weight, but Dr Healy says establishing a good sleep routine is one of the best ways of ensuring a child gets enough sleep.
One of the first steps, she says, is to make bedrooms screen-free zones and to make sure that phones and tablets are charged elsewhere.
Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, director of human health and nutrition at safefood, says parents know that children need healthy food and exercise to stay well, but are unaware of the importance of quality sleep.
The new safefood campaign is hoping to change that. It has the backing of the Government and aims to heighten awareness among parents.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar welcomed the campaign and said: “Sufficient sleep is very important for the health of adults and children alike. Children who get enough sleep at night are more awake and alert during the day, which helps them to learn better in schools.
“It also means they are less inclined to eat high-energy foods, do more exercise and stay at a healthy weight.”
Mr Varadkar also highlighted the need to ensure that children get adequate time to switch off from all the digital distractions in today’s busy world.
A staggering 45% of Irish nine year olds have a TV in their bedroom, a statistic that mirrors what is going on in most western countries. Two-thirds of those watch up to three hours of TV a day, with one in ten watching more. Those figures don’t include the time spent playing video games on computers, tablets, or smartphones.
“Children need to have wind-down time before bedtime, just as we adults do, and we need to make children’s bedrooms screen-free zones, and that includes charging all phones, tablets, etc, elsewhere at night,” Dr Foley-Nolan says.
Even if parents aren’t aware of the links between obesity and lack of sleep, they are conscious that their children aren’t getting enough sleep.
Last month, a safefood survey of more than 1,500 parents found that almost two-thirds (63%) said they didn’t think their child got enough sleep.
Nearly eight in ten (77%) said they had tried to reduce their child’s screen time.
It’s an encouraging start that can be built on if parents take a few simple steps. Parenting expert Dr John Sharry suggests that parents make a rule to ban screen time until homework is done.
He adds that it’s really important to ensure there is no screen time for a good hour before bedtime so that children can wind down properly.
Other simple steps can be taken too, such as making sure that children don’t have big meals before bedtime and that their bedrooms are places that induce sleep. “Keep them dark, quiet, comfortable, and cool,” Dr Sharry says.
For more tips on a healthy sleep-time habits, see http://www.safefood.eu/Childhood-Obesity/It-s-Bedtime/Get-started.aspx
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