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Adequate sleep during infancy can help curb long-term obesity, new study finds

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

When you think of obesity prevention, sleep is not usually what comes to mind. However, a new study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that adequate sleep during infancy can help curb long-term obesity.

One in three children are overweight or obese by the time they start school. Though a shocking statistic, researchers have found that sleep intervention in infancy reduces the risk of developing obesity and helps to form healthy sleep habits later on in life.

"Sleep is a very important behaviour that we need to consider. In terms of maintaining a healthy weight, sleep usually isn't the first behaviour that comes to mind - for parents or health practitioners - yet the research is actually very clear," said researcher Rachael Taylor.

"The relationship between not getting enough sleep and being at a higher risk of obesity is actually stronger than the evidence base for nutrition or activity, where the findings are often more mixed," Taylor added.

The study consisted of more than 800 babies, each of whose mothers were divided into four groups. Three of the groups received intervention in addition to the standard Well Child/Tamariki Ora care: sleep; promotion of breastfeeding, healthy eating, and physical activity.

For the sleep intervention, pregnant women, mothers, and their partners were invited to a group discussion based on what to expect sleep-wise with their baby in the first few months, as well as how to prevent sleep problems.

When the infants were about three weeks old, their sleep patterns were monitored at home. The researchers taught parents to recognize signals from the baby that they were tired, and then encourage the baby to settle themselves to sleep. If a sleep problem developed, expert support was immediately available until infants were two years old.

For nutrition and activity intervention, a lactation consultant visited mothers at least two times during the first few months of feeding. Researchers also visited them to discuss healthy eating habits and being physically active as a family.

Researchers found that the brief sleep intervention reduced the risk of obesity in the years that followed, while no benefit was observed from the nutrition and activity intervention.

"For those children who received the sleep intervention, we found that at two years of age they had about half the risk of obesity compared with children who had not received the sleep intervention. As any parent knows, getting enough good quality sleep keeps a child happy, behaving well and enjoying life. However, it also helps them do well at school, their diets are better, and they tend to be more active - all factors that help us be healthier," added Taylor.

According to co-author Barry Taylor, children should have a regular sleep routine. Screen-time should be avoided for at least 30 minutes before going to bed, as well as in bed.

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