Preventing Childhood Obesity with Sleep Intervention

New research from Penn State College of Medicine has reported that it may be possible to prevent childhood obesity by teaching parents special techniques for bedtime routines, along with healthy sleeping habits in their infants.  This comes in light of the strong links between childhood obesity and inadequate sleep.

Scientists have been looking for a good way to intervene in the rapid growth of childhood obesity and extreme infant weight gain.  The study, INSIGHT, which stands for Intervention Nurses Start Infants Growing on Healthy Trajectories, cut the cases of overweight 1-year-old infants in half with their interventions.  One part of the intervention includes improving sleep behaviors and hygiene between both infants and their parents.

Two groups were used in this study, both of which received reading materials and four home visits from nurses.  One group received education about safety and prevention of sudden infant death syndrome.  The other group received a bit more.  They were educated on ways to prevent obesity, which included bedtime routines, improved sleep duration, avoidance of rocking the infant to sleep while feeding, and the importance of other sleep-related behaviors.

The infants who were part of the second group and learned consistent bedtime routines had better bedtime techniques, along with longer sleep time through the night and improved sleep-related behaviors than the infants who were part of the group that only received safety training.  The infants who were sleep trained in that latter group were able to soothe themselves back to sleep without feeding.  They were less likely to need to be fed back to sleep after awakening.

These results were published in the JAMA Pediatrics.

Throughout the interventional study, the researchers noted that earlier bedtimes and self-soothing infants played significant roles in prolonging sleep duration.  Babies at 9 months of age who were put to bed by 8 p.m. and allowed to soothe themselves back to sleep had an average of 80 additional minutes of sleep than the infants who went to bed after 8 p.m. and were rocked or fed to sleep.

The study’s lead author, Ian M. Paul, Pediatrics and Public Health Sciences Professor, notes that it is common for parents to try to keep their infants up longer at night, thinking that the later they’re up, the longer they will sleep.  This study shows this is not the case.  The longer the babies were kept awake, the less they slept.  Therefore, if parents want their babies to sleep through the night for longer periods, they need to be put to bed earlier.  It is important to understand, though, that no matter what time the babies are put to bed, they will likely wake at some point in the night.  This is why it is important not to set the expectation that they will be fed when they do wake up, allowing them to self-soothe back to sleep.

Furthermore, this study notes that shorter sleep durations are linked to negative effects on both the parents’ and the child’s mental health.

Researchers emphasize the importance of establishing good sleep habits earlier in the child’s life for the vast health benefits, including prevention of obesity and emotional health of both the child and the rest of the family.  Mr. Paul notes that they understand new parents are not thinking about obesity when their baby is screaming in the middle of the night; however, this intervention is designed specifically to combat a growing problem among American children by talking explicitly with the parents about their child’s weight and sleep habits.



Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include hiking in the Rockies, cooking, and reading.



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