More than a third of American youth are considered overweight or obese, a fact at which we parents have a tendency to roll our eyes at now. Is it because we don't care that our kids are getting soft around the edges?
No, it's just that our perception of normal is so warped that instead of being concerned, we nod sympathetically when our friend relates that her smart, athletic, slightly pudgy munchkin has been labeled overweight by the pediatrician. Who are they to say? we scoff as we shake our heads. He is just about to have a growth spurt, we nod. He takes after his grandfather, we nod again. Maybe he should sign up for baseball, we all agree.
But how did we get here?
The connection between self-regulation and obesity has long been a focal point of research. Indeed, it's been understood for decades that addictive behaviors have a much broader reach than the oft-publicized alcoholism and drugs.
And thanks to a recent study released on April 24, 2017 by the “International Journal of Obesity," we now know of one more.
Regular bedtime routines for preschoolers have now been linked to a decreased risk of obesity by age 11, and researchers believe that the association exists even when self-regulation skills are accounted for.
Researchers from Ohio State University, Temple University, and the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health in London teamed up to evaluate surveys received as a part of the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Information was gathered regarding bedtime and mealtime routines, along with the amount of daily screen time for each of nearly 11,000 three-year-olds. Children were also evaluated by parental survey for emotional and cognitive self-regulation skills.
Eight years later, the children's height and weight were measured and obesity rates were calculated using the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) criteria. Children were also assessed again for emotional and cognitive self-regulation skills.
Unsurprisingly, a link was found between all household routines and emotional self-regulation skills, but no link existed between the same routines and the cognitive self-regulation skills commonly associated with the ability to focus on and persist through academic tasks.
In terms of risk of obesity, a link between self-regulation and future obesity was statistically established, but researchers were surprised that even when differences in self-regulation were accounted for, a regular bedtime routine was the single factor that continued to be linked with decreased risk of obesity at age 11.
Simply speaking, the benefits of a regular bedtime routine extended beyond improved emotional self-regulation. Even children who did not experience the typical improvement in emotional self-regulation experienced decreased risk of obesity at age 11 if they had a regular bedtime routine at age three.
Researchers are still unsure of exactly why this link exists independently of other factors, but one researcher surmised that the answer may be found in how sleep affects metabolism.
“Sleep is so important and it's important for children in particular. Although there is much that remains unknown about how sleep impacts metabolism, research is increasingly finding connections between obesity and poor sleep," lead author, Sarah Anderson noted. She went on to explain that future research might reveal how bedtime routines can support healthy development.
Though it's not clear exactly why, it's safe to say that consistent, established bedtime routines for preschoolers sets a healthy foundation for future self-regulation skills and diminished risk of obesity.
How can you enact one at home?
Start with the time you want your children in bed, and work backwards. Allow a half hour for stories, snuggles, and songs, then add fifteen minutes for teeth brushing and putting on jammies. You'll need to allow additional time if your child needs to bathe or lay out clothing for the next day.
Prioritize the bedtime routine over other distractions, and you'll be on the road to bedtime success.