As any parent knows, there’s nothing more exhausting than an exhausted toddler.
Sleep-deprived preschoolers can challenge even the most calm parent, but that lack of sleep can do more than destroy family harmony.
It can set your child up for a lifetime of weight problems.
That’s because sleepy preschoolers eat more, according to a recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder. And that can have lifetime consequences.
For the study, the preschoolers, who all regularly took afternoon naps, were deprived of about three hours of sleep on one day. That meant they didn’t get their naps, but were also kept up for about two hours past their bedtimes.
What the researchers discovered is that during the day of lost sleep, the 3 and 4 year olds ate about 20 percent more calories than usual, including 25 percent more sugar and 26 percent more carbohydrates.
The day after their sleep deprivation, the children were allowed to sleep as much as they needed. On what the researchers called this “recovery day,” the kids returned to their normal baseline levels of sugar and carbohydrates, but still ate 14 percent more calories and 23 percent more fat than normal.
“With this study design, children missed a daytime nap and stayed up late, which mimics one way that children lose sleep in the real world,” said Assistant Professor Monique LeBourgeois of the Department of Integrative Physiology.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 30 percent of preschoolers do not get enough sleep.
“We found that sleep loss increased the dietary intake of preschoolers on both the day of and the day after restricted sleep,” she said.
The results shed light on how sleep loss can increase weight gain and why a number of large studies show that preschoolers who do not get enough sleep are more likely to be obese as a child and later in life, the researchers noted.
Why is this important?
Even with extensive obesity prevention efforts in the past decade, childhood obesity is an epidemic. In 2014, 23 percent of American children under the age of 5 years were overweight or obese, according to LeBourgeois.
Childhood obesity increases the risk for chronic illnesses such as diabetes and is associated with low self-esteem and depression. Overweight kids are about four times more likely to be obese as adults.
The children in the study — five girls and five boys — each wore small activity sensors on their wrists to measure time in bed, sleep duration and sleep quality. Parents logged all food and beverages consumed by the preschoolers, including portion sizes, brand names and quantities, using household measures like grams, teaspoons and cups. For homemade dishes parents recorded ingredients, quantities and cooking methods.
The study is small, but it opens the door for a number of follow-up studies, according to the researchers.
But even the most exhausted parent knows that making sure their toddler gets enough sleep is good for them in so many ways. This just adds one more reason to enforce bedtimes to ensure kids get enough sleep.