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Is Sleep as Important as Diet for Children?

Tired little girl fell asleep at the table.If you had to decide between a healthy diet or a full night’s sleep for your baby, which one would you choose?

I’m obviously biased on this issue, being a baby sleep consultant and all, so I’ll recuse myself from the voting here. Typically, I think we would lean towards their diet being a more important factor in their overall health. Is that a fair assessment?

After all, you are what you eat and all that. What you get out of your body all depends on what you put into it, right? We’ve all heard the catch phrases surrounding the importance of diet, and rightly so! I agree 100 per cent that our diet, and more importantly that of our babies, is probably the most important contributor to our children’s health.

But just barely, because sleep is a very, very close second.

In fact, sleep and diet are more interwoven than you might imagine. A British study that followed more than 8,000 children found that those who slept fewer than 10 and a half hours a night at age 3 had a 45 percent higher risk of becoming obese by age 7, compared to children who slept more than 12 hours a night.

Project Viva, a U.S. study of 915 children, found that infants who averaged fewer than 12 hours of sleep a day had twice the odds of being obese at age 3, compared with those who slept for 12 hours or more.

Obviously this isn’t just a result of a lack of sleep, but not getting enough shut-eye can disrupt our circadian rhythm and interfere with appetite hormones that control how hungry we feel. This can cause kids to overeat, as well as cause some heavy sugar cravings in a search for some quick calories to compensate for their lack of energy.

Kids who don’t get enough sleep are also less likely to get enough exercise for exactly the same reason. Poor sleep results in a lack of energy, which means they don’t feel like engaging in physical activities. Kids who don’t get enough exercise tend to get poor sleep, and they whole cycle perpetuates itself.

Now I’m sure this doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but obesity is one of the biggest public health issues currently facing the U.S. and obese children are more likely to be obese in adulthood, putting them at a drastically greater risk for more health issues than I’ve got the room to list. Some of the more notable ones include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, joint problems, and more than a dozen different types of cancer.

Obesity has become a popular topic in the last several years, with the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign rallying the public to make substantial improvements in the way we feed our kids, and to enable and encourage a physically active lifestyle.

Obviously, nobody in their right mind would argue that we shouldn’t provide our kids with healthy food, or allow them to get enough exercise. Every parent in the world would tell you that they’re all for good food and exercise. But when it comes to sleep, we seem to take on a much more lethargic attitude.

“They’ll sleep when they’re ready. All children are different. My kids just don’t seem to need a lot of sleep.” These types of comments are commonplace when you’re chatting with other parents. Some people even tell me, rather aggressively on occasion, that I’m “shaming” people into getting their kids to sleep.

But would we seriously accept these arguments if we were talking about diet and exercise? Does your child just not need a lot of exercise? Do kids just start eating healthy food when they’re ready?

Of course not.

So I propose that we start the Let’s Snooze! Campaign. It’s a call to action for all of us to get serious about our kids’ sleep, to enforce strict bedtimes, to construct predictable, diligent bedtime routines, and to do whatever is necessary to make sure your kids get all of the healthy, restorative sleep they need.

Hopefully, I can convince Michelle to endorse it.

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Dana’s Sleep Blog

Straight talk about sleep, parenting,
babies, toddlers, relationships… and
just about anything else!
My blog is a great place to find opinions, advice, the occasional rant, and some great videos about sleep.

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