Sleeping child
Researchers found that participants who used any electronic device during the day and before bedtime experienced a 60- minute delay in falling asleep. (Representational image)Giacomo Carena/Flickr

Getting a sound sleep in early life is crucial to remaining fit and fine for the rest of the life. Explaining this point, new research reveals lack of proper sleep at the early stages of growth increases risk of obesity in children. 

Researchers from the University College of London looked at 1,303 families enrolled in the Gemini twin birth cohort in the UK and found a direct link between short sleep and excess consumption of food.

During the study, researchers collected sleep, weight and dietary data when the children were around 16, 17 and 21 months old respectively.

Sleep duration of children was assessed by interviewing parents who provided information about their children's normal bed and waking time and details of daytime nap. To measure eating habits and food intake, parents were asked to write down whatever food items and drinks their children had in the past three days.

At the end of the study, a sleep duration that lasted less than 10 hours was associated with consumption of 105kcal extra daily, compared to the ones sleeping more than 13 hours.

"We know that shorter sleep in early life increases the risk of obesity, so we wanted to understand whether shorter sleeping children consume more calories," researcher Dr Abi Fisher from the Health Behaviour Research Centre at UCL, said in a news release.

"Previous studies in adults and older children have shown that sleep loss causes people to eat more, but in early life, parents make most of the decisions about when and how much their children eat, so young children cannot be assumed to show the same patterns.

"The key message here is that shorter sleeping children may prone to consume too many calories," says Dr Fisher. "Although more research is needed to understand why this might be, it is something parents should be made aware of."

The findings published in the International Journal of Obesity come at a time when the world is struggling hard to fight childhood obesity. A 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) report showed that more than 40 million children aged below five were overweight.

According to the National Sleep Foundation in the US, newborns and toddlers should get 10.5 to 18 hours and 12 to 14 hours sleep every day. Several studies in the past have shown similar after effects associated with too little sleep in young children. A British study of 8,000 children found a 45 percent increased risk of obesity associated with sleeping less than 10 hours a day at age three.

In another US study of 915 of infants, babies who slept less than 12 hours daily had twice the odds of becoming obese by age three. Last year November, Chantelle Hart and colleagues from the Temple University found that sleep deprivation encouraged children to eat more food and thus gain weight. 

According to experts at the Harvard School of Public Health in the US, sleep deprivation increases food intake by changing the function of hormones that regulate hunger - by tempting people to eat more during the extra waking hours they get, by influencing food choices negatively, by encouraging to spend more time in sitting activities than physical ones, and lowering body temperature that further leads to decreased energy consumption.