Tackling the childhood obesity epidemic: Can regular bedtimes help?

Nearly one in five 10 and 11-year-olds in England is obese, according to NHS figures. With childhood obesity posing not just a nationwide, but a worldwide health threat, public health researchers around the globe are striving to establish which aspects of a young child’s life might set them on a path to being obese later on. Associate Professor Sarah Anderson from The Ohio State University College of Public Health and colleagues from University College London outline the first research to try to disentangle the role of children’s routines and behaviour at age 3 on obesity at age 11 and show that bedtime routines and learning to manage emotions really do matter.

The UK’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies has warned that the health of millions of children is in jeopardy and is concerned that being overweight is becoming the norm. She fears half the population could be obese by 2050 at a cost of billions of pounds to the health service and wider economy.

The latest statistics highlight a stark contrast between the wealthiest and poorest families, with childhood obesity rates in the most deprived areas more than double those in the most affluent areas.

Despite the publication in August 2016 of the Government’s long-awaited childhood obesity strategy, charities and health organisations remain highly critical, describing it as a watered-down effort that puts business interests ahead of those of public health. Even the recent introduction of the so-called ‘sugar-tax’ on soft drinks has been met with scepticism in some quarters.

To help inform public health strategies going forward, our researchers looked at the bedtime, mealtime and tv/video routines of very young children and their emotional and behavioural development to see if, at this early stage, it is possible to identify those most at risk of becoming obese.

The study includes information on nearly 11,000 children collected through the UK Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). When the children were three, their parents reported whether children always, usually, sometimes, or never or almost never had a regular bedtime and mealtime, and the amount of television and video they watched each day.

They were also asked a series of questions about the child’s behaviour during the previous six months. Questions were about how children cope with emotions and their persistence and independence in play, including how easily the child became frustrated and whether they sought help from adults when faced with a difficult task. This was to get an idea of how well the child was able to ‘self-regulate’ their behaviour in these areas.

Regular routines

Children with regular bed and mealtimes and who watched less television were better able to control their emotions than their peers with less regular and consistent routines.

At 11-years-old, 6.2 per cent (682) of the children in the MCS were obese, with obesity more common in lower income and less educated families.

Of the routines we studied, inconsistent bedtime was most strongly associated with the risk of obesity, supporting recent findings by our UCL colleagues which showed that young children who skipped breakfast and went to bed at irregular times were more likely to be obese at age 11, stressing the importance of adequate sleep for preventing childhood obesity.

Even children who ‘usually’ had a regular bedtime were 20 per cent more likely to be obese than those who ‘always’ went to bed at around the same time.

Regular bedtimes and obesity

Surprisingly, toddlers with irregular meal times had a lower risk of obesity at age 11. Once other routines were factored in, television viewing was not related to obesity, although it is important to note that computer use was not taken into account, and the media environment for young children today is different than it was when children in MCS were young.

There was also a clear link between lower levels of emotional self-control in early childhood and obesity later on. Children with poor emotion regulation at age 3 were over 50 per cent more likely to be obese when studied at age 11.

Children’s level of persistence and independence was not linked to later obesity, however, and it is possible that this could be explained by the relative immaturity of the parts of the brain responsible for a child’s cognitive compared with their emotional development at this young age.

Strongest risk

Our study is the first to look at the relationship between a child’s routines, their ability to regulate their emotions and behaviour and how these factors work together to predict obesity.

The two strongest risk factors for obesity were irregular bedtime and a poor ability to control emotions and these were completely independent of each other. In other words, the link between bedtimes and obesity could not be explained away by a child’s inability to regulate their emotions.

There is a need to look more closely at the timing and regularity of children’s mealtimes and how they impact obesity later on, as we think there may be a lot more factors at play than we have considered here. We also need to better understand how the development of emotional and cognitive self-regulation interacts with metabolic, behavioural and social pathways to obesity.

However, our study supports previous research showing that children’s emotional regulation develops within a family context which includes routines.

One message from our study is crystal clear. To be effective, obesity strategies must target early childhood, and must find a way to support parents, especially those from the most deprived areas, to introduce and maintain consistent bedtimes and other home routines, as well as help children regulate emotions and respond to stress.

Another key message is that one size does not fit all. There is a lot going on in children’s lives that is important for their health and development. Saying that, it would seem that getting our children to bed at the same time every night could be a simple, cost-effective tool in the tool-kit to get them off to a good start and maybe in the larger battle against obesity.

Self-regulation and household routines at age three and obesity at age 11: Longitudinal analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study is research by Sarah Anderson from The Ohio State University College of Public Health; Amanda Sacker and Yvonne Kelly from University College London and Robert Whitaker of Temple University, Philadelphia.

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Reducing harm from alcohol consumption

Child of our Time editor Yvonne Kelly has shared her latest research findings on very young drinkers with policy makers, senior health professionals and third sector groups.

Yvonne was  part of a high profile panel presenting research and taking questions from MPs and others with an interest in the creation of a strategy to reduce harm from alcohol consumption.

The event, organised by The All-Party Parliamentary Health Group and CLOSER (the UK Longitudinal Studies Consortium), comes as a recent report from Public Health England stated that among those aged 15 to 49 in England, alcohol is now the leading risk factor for ill-health, early mortality and disability and the fifth leading risk factor for ill health across all age groups.

It has also been acknowledged that the harmful effects of heavy alcohol consumption go well beyond the implications for public health, presenting both serious economic and social challenges: current estimates of the annual cost to society of alcohol consumption range from 1.3% to 2.7% of annual GDP. In addition, around half of all violent incidents involving adults are alcohol-related.

Photo credit: Jes 

You can find more articles about Yvonne’s research on young people and alcohol by typing ‘alcohol’ into our blog Search bar.

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Be prepared: the mental health benefits of scouting and guiding

Being a scout or a guide when we are young might be a good experience for us in all sorts of ways, but can those positive effects be long lasting though our lives and if so, how? Research using the 1958 Birth Cohort shows a strong link between being a scout or a guide when young and better mental health later in life. Professor Richard Mitchell from the University of Glasgow talks to the Child of our Time Podcast about the research, what he and colleagues from Edinburgh found and what he thinks it tells us.

Photo credit: One-and-Other Girl Guides UK

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Cyberbullying – the long term effects

For all the wonderful opportunities and connectivity that the internet has brought in recent decades, it seems likely that 2016 will be the year that the internet is mostly remembered for trolling and cyberbullying. It’s a growing phenomenon, not least among school-aged children. In 2015/16 the children’s charity Childline reported a 2 year increase of 88 per cent in calls from children about cyberbullying and the Government recently funded an app aimed at helping pupils report incidents. Meanwhile, a team of researchers at Queen Mary University of London has been looking for the first time at how cyberbullying affects the mental health of young people later on in their lives. Dr Amanda Fahy explains more.

There are three Ps which distinguish cyberbullying from what we might think of as more ‘traditional’ face-to-face forms of bullying: permanence, publicity and permeability.

The thinking behind our study was that all these factors may well mean that the mental wounds and scars inflicted on young people who experience this type of bullying, run even deeper. Certainly it has been identified in numerous quarters as a matter of serious public health concern.

Whilst one or two international studies have demonstrated a link between being a cybervictim and signs of depression, there is little evidence in the UK to show who is affected and how over time. Our research looks at young people who are bullied, those doing the bullying and those who are both bullying and being bullied and goes onto examine their mental health one year down the line.

Regeneration study

The research made use of information collected initially from more than 3,000 Year 7 (aged 11-12) students who participated in the Olympic Regeneration in East London (ORiEL) study which was designed to evaluate the impact of the urban regeneration associated with the London 2012 Olympic Games.

When the students in the study moved into Year 8 (Aged 12-13) they were asked some questions about their experiences of cyberbullying in the preceding 12 months. These included how often they had received rude or nasty comments from someone, become the target of rumours spread online or received threatening or aggressive comments.

The same students were asked if and how often they had been a perpetrator of cyberbullying. Had they sent rude or nasty comments to anyone, spread rumours or sent aggressive or threatening messages online?

A year later when the students had entered Year 9 (aged 13-14) students were asked a range of questions about their experiences and feelings from the previous two weeks and this information was used to create scores for signs of depression, social anxiety and poor mental well-being.

Involvement in cyberbullying

More than 40% of the students reported involvement in cyberbullying in the previous 12 months – 13.6% as cybervictims, 8.2% as cyberbullies and 20.4% as cyberbully-victims. Girls were a lot less likely than boys to fall into the latter category.

Around a quarter of all the young people interviewed showed signs of depression and/or social anxiety and here, with girls more likely than boys to report these symptoms and have lower levels of well-being.

Victims of cyberbullying were almost twice as likely as the completely uninvolved youngsters to show signs of depression even after taking a range of background factors into account. The effect stayed strong even after we accounted for them having poor mental health when they joined the study age 11-12.

Those who reported both being bullied and doing the bullying were more than twice as likely as those who were completely uninvolved to be depressed, whilst those who said they had only been involved in bullying were no more or less depressed than their uninvolved peers.

Damaging effects

The findings for social anxiety and lower levels of well-being were similar to the findings for depression, providing us with a clear picture of the damaging psychological impacts of cyberbullying for victims and for those who were both bullied and perpetrators themselves of cyber bullying.

With 4 out of ten children of this age involved in some way with cyberbullying and given that our results showed that even low level experiences of cyberbullying can have harmful effects over time, it is key that all those involved in the care, education and well-being young adolescents have a grasp of the issues involved and the tools to reduce and prevent its occurrence where possible. Our research indicates that boys and young people who are both victims and bullies are important groups to target.

Longitudinal Associations Between Cyberbullying Involvement and Adolescent Mental Health is research by Amanda Fahy, Stephen Stannsfeld, Melanie Smuk, Neil Smith, Steven Cummins and Charlotte Clark. It is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Photo credit: bad-cyberbully, Winning Information

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Giving children the best possible start – what matters most?

Child of our Time Editor Yvonne Kelly spoke to a 500-strong audience of politicians and professionals in Gothenburg recently on what matters when it comes to giving children the best possible start in life.

Yvonne was the keynote speaker at the conference hoping to identify the best strategies for making Gothenburg a more equal and socially sustainable city.

Yvonne, Professor of Lifecourse Epidemiology at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL  explained which factors are most closely linked with a child’s health and well-being and presented her research findings on children’s verbal skills, behaviour, bedtimes, reading and obesity.

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Putting a SPRING in the step of mums-to-be

Making sure that mums-to-be are in the best possible health is key to ensuring their baby gets the best possible start in life. But what sorts of things can help them achieve that? In this episode of the Child of our Time Podcast, Professor Hazel Inskip from the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton, talks about an ongoing trial making use of healthy conversations and Vitamin D supplements to try to improve the diet of just pregnant women.

Photo credit: Pregnant, Frank de Kleine

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Better start for children

Giving children the best possible start in life is the topic of a keynote talk today by our editor Yvonne Kelly.

Yvonne will be presenting a range of new evidence from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies  to politicians, business leaders, and other professionals and key decision makers at an event discussing how Gothenburg can be made an equal and socially sustainable city.

Yvonne will talk about the factors which are most closely linked with a child’s health and well-being and present findings on children’s verbal skills, behaviour, bedtimes, reading and obesity. She will make the case that signs of social inequalities are evident early in a child’s life and that it is important to intervene early to tackle those inequalities.

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Sugar-coating the childhood obesity problem

Child obesity figures appear to be on the rise again, causing much concern after earlier signs they had levelled off.  The proportion of  10- and 11-year-olds who were obese in 2015-16 was 19.8 percent, up 0.7 percent on the year before. There was a rise of 0.2 percent among four- and five-year-olds. The announcement comes as researchers at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL have been looking in detail at how and when children become overweight. The team has also been asking whether children who are overweight are more likely to go on to smoke and drink alcohol and if their mental health suffers as they become adolescents. Yvonne Kelly explains the research findings, and considers their implications for the Government’s recent strategy for tackling the childhood obesity epidemic.

The Government’s much-awaited and much-debated childhood obesity strategy was published in August. In the end, it was less comprehensive than had been anticipated, less draconian too. It focuses on two things – reducing sugar consumption and increasing physical activity. But will it be effective in reversing this worrying obesity trend among our children?

It’s fair to say we don’t fully understand what things influence whether, when and why a child might become overweight. Research to date has shown three distinct weight pathways for children: a healthy BMI throughout childhood; becoming overweight during childhood and being overweight/obese throughout childhood.

Previous research has also shown that the child’s mother’s weight, smoking in pregnancy, mental health and other social and economic factors have some link to childhood obesity. But the evidence is far from complete and, where a child’s own mental health is concerned, it’s not at all clear which way the association works.

To try to get a clearer picture of all these things, our research looked at the BMI paths of the participants in the Millennium Cohort Study, which has tracked the lives of nearly 20,000 children born between 2000-2002. We used data collected at birth, 9 months, age 3, 5, 7 and 11.

Once we had established who was on which BMI path, we were able to look at what factors were at play in their lives and to see whether a tendency to overweight and obesity was an indication that a child would go on to face mental health difficulties in early adolescence or start smoking and drinking.

Four pathways to obesity

The BMI data for the 17,000 children we were able to look at for our study showed four distinct groups of children. More than 80 per cent of them stayed on an average non-overweight path throughout their childhood – we call it the ‘stable’ path. There was a small group (0.6 percent) of children who were obese at age 3 but were then in the stable group by age 7. We call them the the ‘decreasing’ group. There was a ‘moderate increasing group’ (13.1 percent) where children were not overweight at age 3 but whose BMIs increased throughout childhood into the overweight (but not obese) range. Finally we had a ‘high increasing’ group of children (2.5 percent) who were obese at age 3 and whose BMIs continued to increase.

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Girls were 30 percent more likely to be in the ‘moderate increasing’ group than boys and were half as likely to be on the ‘decreasing’ path. Indian, Pakistani and Black African children were up to two times more likely to be on the ‘moderate increasing’ path whilst Pakistani, Black Caribbean and Black African children were up to three times more likely to belong to the ‘high increasing’ group.

The wealthiest children were least likely to be in the ‘moderate increasing’ BMI group and children of mums who smoked during pregnancy were up to two times as likely to belong to increasing BMI groups. Children with overweight mums were most likely to be on the moderate and high increasing paths.

Children on the moderate and high increasing paths were less likely to have regular family routines – they were more likely to skip breakfast or have non-regular bedtime schedules. Interestingly, however, no strong links emerged with some of the things more readily linked with childhood obesity such as sugary drinks and snacks, watching TV and lack of physical activity such as sports, the main focus of the newly published childhood obesity strategy.

Overweight factors

So it seems quite a large range of factors influence the likelihood of a child becoming overweight or obese over the first decade of their life. On top of this, being overweight or obese would also seem to point to a less happy and fulfilling early adolescence and a tendency to explore risky behaviours like smoking and drinking.

Although our research did not show a clear link with sugary drinks and snacks, there are nevertheless some compelling arguments for reducing the sugar intake of our children. These are not only related to problems of obesity, but to wider issues including the major issue of tooth decay and associated emergency hospital admissions. There is also increasing evidence of the ‘addictive’ nature of sugar with research suggesting that it stimulates a sort of ‘reward path’ in certain centres of the brain meaning that the more we have the more we want. It has been shown that people who reduce their sugar intake tend to crave it less.

Where sugar taxes have been introduced in other countries (Mexico, France, Denmark, South Africa amongst others), the intervention has been shown to help reduce the consumption of sugary drinks. As yet, there is no evidence that it helps reduce BMI and tackle obesity, but it’s argued it will take time for us to see an effect on whole populations.

Disadvantaged families

It is hard to predict how much impact the voluntary rather than mandatory reduction in sugar content of drinks and snacks agreed in the strategy will have. As for the sugar tax that will be introduced in two years’ time, there remain concerns that disadvantaged families more likely to purchase and consume sugary goods than their better off counterparts will be hardest hit. Policy makers will need to think hard about how any negative consequences of this might be counteracted.

Our research shows clearly that when it comes to the likelihood of a child becoming overweight or obese in the first decade of their life, there are many more influences than just sugar. Those influences are at play in families even before our children are born.

Helping pregnant women to stop smoking and maintain a healthy weight, making sure all young children have healthy eating and sleeping routines would seem to be key, together with targeted support for the ethnic and social groups identified as being most at risk.

Further information and resources

BMI development and early adolescent psychosocial well-being: UK Millennium Cohort Study is research by Yvonne Kelly, Praveetha Patalay, Scott Montgomery, and Amanda Sacker. The work, published in Pediatrics, is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Media coverage

Photo credit: Kim Stromstad

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BMI development and early adolescent psychosocial well-being

Research looking at how and when children become overweight is helping to shed new light on ongoing efforts by the Government and others to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic.

A team of researchers at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL has also been asking whether children who are overweight are more likely to go on to smoke and drink alcohol and if their mental health suffers as they become adolescents.

The research, published in Pediatrics, shows clearly that when it comes to the likelihood of a child becoming overweight or obese in the first decade of their life, there are many more influences than just sugar (a main plank in the Government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy).

The research also shows that  influences are at play in families even before children are born and indicates that helping pregnant women to stop smoking and maintain a healthy weight, making sure all young children have healthy eating and sleeping routines may be key, together with targeted support for ethnic and social groups identified as being most at risk.

Lead researcher, Yvonne Kelly presented the findings at the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies 2016 conference in Bamberg.

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Never too early, never too late

n2en2l_620x877The research team at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL has produced a plain English booklet summarising some of its recent research and what can be learned from it in respect of living as long and as healthy and happy a life as possible.

Never too early, never too late shares a number of important research findings from research making use of longitudinal surveys such as the British Birth Cohort Studies and the UK Household Longitudinal Study.

 

The free booklet explains why it’s so important to take a life course approach  to research and the benefits off looking at how our social and material circumstances and our biology intertwine to impact on our health and happiness over time.

Issues covered include mental health, obesity, stress and its links to chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart and lung disease,  cancer, diabetes and dementia.

Further information

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