As parents know, getting a preschooler to go to sleep early can be quite a feat. But new research suggests a health payoff down the line: Young kids who are tucked into bed by 8 p.m. may be less likely to be obese later in life.
In a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, scientists found that preschoolers who regularly went to sleep at 9 p.m. or later were twice as likely to be obese as teens, compared with those who went to sleep by 8 p.m. at preschool age.
“For parents, this reinforces the importance of establishing a bedtime routine,” Sarah Anderson, lead author and associate professor of epidemiology at the Ohio State University College of Public Health, says in a statement. “It’s something concrete that families can do to lower their child’s risk and it’s also likely to have positive benefits on behavior and on social, emotional and cognitive development.”
In the study, researchers looked at typical bedtimes of 977 kids whose average age was 4.5 years. They divided the kids into three groups: those who regularly went to bed by 8 p.m., those with bedtimes between 8 and 9 p.m., and those who went to sleep at 9 p.m. or later. The researchers followed them for about 10 years and looked at the relationship between their preschool bedtimes and their risk of obesity when they were 15.
Only 10 percent of the kids with the earliest preschool bedtimes were obese as teens, compared with 16 percent of children with mid-range bedtimes and 23 percent of kids who went to sleep the latest.
The results do not prove that later bedtimes directly cause obesity later in life, but they show that there is a link between the two, the researchers note.
It is also not clear why exactly kids’ bedtimes and later obesity risk are related. However, one possible reason is that kids who go to bed later often get too little sleep. Previous research published in the journal Pediatrics has suggested that getting too little sleep is linked to a greater obesity risk.
Though putting a child to bed early does not guarantee they will fall asleep right away, it’s still more likely that they will get the amount of shut-eye that they need to be at their best, Anderson says.
To get preschoolers into the habit of going to bed early, establishing a routine is key, says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a licensed neuropsychologist based in New York City.
“Preschoolers are wired up for play and fun, seemingly with boundless energy,” she says. “Activities that always happen prior to bed, for example a soothing shower, bedtime reading, maybe even a little dancing around with mommy and daddy, are a good way to wrap up the day, expend some of that stamina to get ready for sleep.”
As part of this routine, parents should also limit kids’ consumption of soda and junk food close to bedtime and turn off the TV around that time, because the screen can be too stimulating, she recommends.
“If one parent is making dinner, the other can help prep your preschooler,” Hafeez says.
Once a bedtime routine is established, getting a preschooler to sleep early should get at least a bit easier.