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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