Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


Childhood Obesity and Infant Sleep Patterns

It doesn’t take a fancy study to realize there’s an epidemic of childhood obesity in this country – a drive past any school yard offers proof enough. The question is what we do about it? A new study offers some suggestions.

Researchers in Massachusetts evaluated infants three times between the ages of six months and two. (1) At each visit, they recorded the amount of time the child slept and the amount of time they spent watching TV.

At three years of age, they evaluated the children for obesity, measuring body weight and height as well as skin fold thicknesses. The findings are noteworthy.

Infants who slept less than 12 hours were almost twice as likely to be overweight at age 3 (12% vs. 7%). If the low-sleep children also watched more than 2 hours of television a day, their risk of obesity rose to 17%.

Many factors contribute to the rise of obesity in America. Of course diet and exercise are important but research increasingly points to other issues as well.

Previous studies have shown an association between short sleeping hours and obesity in older children and adolescents (2). This study shows that association begins even in infancy.

Experts debate about the mechanism by which sleep affects weight. Some researchers postulate that being awake longer simply gives a child more time to eat. Another possibility is that decreased sleep leads to decreased activity while awake.

Others wonder if certain studies in adults apply to children as well. These studies show that lack of sleep has an adverse effect on hormones that influence appetite. (3, 4)

Whatever the cause, more and more evidence demonstrates the importance of adequate sleep for people of any age. Make getting adequate sleep a priority – both for yourself and for any children under your care.


1) Short Sleep Duration in Infancy and Risk of Childhood Overweight
Taveras, Elsie M MD, MPH et al. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008;162(4):305-311.

2) Seicean A, Redline S, Seicean S; et al. Association between short sleeping hours and overweight in adolescents: results from a US Suburban High School survey. Sleep Breath. 2007;11(4):285-293.

3) Spiegel K, et al. Brief communication: sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite. Ann Intern Med. 2004;141(11):846-850.

4) Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T, Mignot E. Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index. PLoS Med. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062. 2004;1(3):e62.

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