Kids: How Sleep Affects Eating Habits
According to a new study, kids who don’t get enough sleep have a harder time resisting the temptation to snack. Given that so many kids now have a TV in their bedroom, and/or a smartphone or other device to keep them from going to sleep at a reasonable hour, this study may cause some parents to implement a stricter routine around bedtime, especially if their kids are already overweight or obese.
This latest data, courtesy of researchers at University College London, reveals that five year-olds who got less than 11 hours of sleep had a higher body mass index (BMI) than those who got at least 11 hours of sleep. The sleep-deprived five year-olds were also more tempted to eat their favourite snack when shown the food or reminded about it  (McDonald et al., 2015).
Recommended Total Hours of Sleep
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following amounts of sleep:
- Newborns: 16–18 hours a day
- Pre-school children: 11-12 hours a night
- School-aged children: At least 10 hours a day
- Teens: 9–10 hours a day
- Adults (including the elderly): 7–8 hours a day
How Sleep Affects Eating Habits
Earlier studies have shown that both adults and children who are sleep-deprived are more likely to be overweight or obese, with various possible mechanisms proposed to explain this association. The lead author of this latest study, which was published in the International Journal of Obesity, noted that there is mounting evidence that too little sleep can drive hedonic eating, i.e. reward-driven eating  (McDonald et al., 2015).
Tips for Avoiding Unhealthy Snacking
The ubiquity of sugar-laden, fatty convenience foods means that it is even easier than ever to give in to those cravings when they arise. So what can parents and guardians do to help keep kids healthy?
Aside from trying to ensure that kids get enough sleep, one idea to minimize unhealthy snacking is to reduce exposure to food cues simply by keeping unhealthy snacks out of sight, or better yet, out of the home altogether. Leaving healthy snacks around, such as fruit, nuts and seeds could help increase a child’s intake of beneficial nutrients, including those that support healthy sleep.
Where possible, it may also be wise to avoid taking kids grocery shopping on days where they are obviously tired as this appears to be when they are most susceptible to food cues in their environment (such as the rows of candy at the checkout). Parents may also wish to talk to their school board to see if it is possible to have vending machines replaced with those that contain healthy snacks, rather than chips, candy and soda.
Healthy Sleep Habits for Kids
Of course, the best option is to teach kids healthy sleep habits early in life. Having a technology blackout for an hour before bed can help kids unwind, prompt the brain to start synthesizing that all-important melatonin, and increase the likelihood of a peaceful bedtime routine. Some kids benefit from the use of blackout curtains, while others find it comforting to have a night light. In the latter case, try to find a product that does not emit the type of blue light that stimulates wakefulness.
Having a bedtime snack can also help some kids to drift off to sleep happily. Opt for low calorie snacks (less than 150 kcal) that contain easily digestible carbohydrates and a little protein to help boost levels of tryptophan, the precursor to the sleep-regulating neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin. Some ideas include:
- Walnuts and cherries
- A wholewheat cracker with humous
- A peanut butter cookie and soy milk
- A small banana and almond milk smoothie
McDonald, L., Wardle, J., Llewellyn, C.H., Fisher, A. Nighttime sleep duration and hedonic eating in childhood. International Journal of Obesity, advance online publication 11 August 2015; doi: 10.1038/ijo.2015.132