From toddlers to teenagers, every parent knows that not getting enough sleep can make kids grumpy and prone to tantrums. But what's less well known is that sleep may also affect how well they eat.
According to UniSA research, a child’s bedtime and how well they sleep at night can impact their eating choices, causing them to skip breakfast and eat more junk food.
The world-first study assessed the sleep and eating behaviours of 28,010 school children aged between 9 and 17, from 368 government and independent schools in South Australia.
The results showed that children who regularly went to bed after 11pm were four to five times more likely to eat breakfast less than three times a week, and two to three times more likely to eat junk food at least five times a week.
Both are warning bells of poor nutrition.
UniSA’s Dr Alex Agostini says the research clearly demonstrates the links between sleep and diet among school-aged children.
“Sleep is important for everyone’s health and wellbeing, but when children and teenagers regularly skip breakfast or eat junk food, their bodies and minds can suffer,” Dr Agostini says.
“Later bedtimes also increase the odds of children and teenagers eating junk food more often, which is never a good thing – not only does junk food lack nutritional benefit, but it also contributes to the growing concerns around childhood obesity.”
Obesity continues to be a significant issue in both New Zealand and Australia, with the two countries having the third and fifth-highest rates of adult obesity among OECD countries.
“One in five children are overweight or obese in OECD areas,” Dr Agostini says.
“It’s become an epidemic, and unless we take a holistic approach to understanding and managing health issues, it will only get worse.”
The study also found a substantial proportion of children in the study to be sleep-deprived.
“The National Sleep Foundation recommends 9-11 hours’ sleep for children aged 6-13, and 8-10 hours’ sleep for children aged 14-17. Yet according to these standards, 16 per cent of children in this study were not getting enough sleep,” Dr Agostini says.
“Good quality sleep – and enough of it – is important for children and adolescents. Without it, children not only develop fatigue and behavioural and emotional problems, but also make poor food choices.
“Promoting healthy sleep and a nutritional diet for children and teenagers is critical if we are to help them realise their best potential, physically and psychologically.”
So what can parents do?
Unfortunately the one-size-fits all approach doesn’t work, as all children are different, and there's no singular way to improve sleep.
Dr Agostini says that the best approach is to customise a routine to what works best for your child.
“Pick a bedtime that allows your child to get the necessary amount of sleep before they have to wake up in the morning for school,” Dr Agostini says.
“This could mean going to bed at 8pm for a 7am rise for your primary-schooler, but understanding that there are also individual differences in the amount of sleep that children need.
“You don’t need to be concerned if you're allowing your 10-year-old 11 hours in bed but she or he is only sleeping for nine hours.”
Dr Agostini also notes the importance of breakfast.
“We’ve heard time and time again that breakfast is the most important meal of the day – and it is! So anything we can do to help your child eat breakfast to start the day right will help them concentrate better at school.
“And try not to be discouraged. We always know that there will be setbacks. Don't let one bad night or one unhealthy meal derail the whole week or month.”
Create a bedtime routine
You cannot underestimate the value of a predictable bedtime routine for children. Our bodies learn when it's time to fall asleep by going to bed at the same time every night (and similarly waking at the same time every morning). Doing the same thing every night before bed will allow kids to learn when it's time for bed, so sleep should come more easily.
Warm up to calm down
Creating a sense of calm before bed, such as a warm bath or shower, can help kids warm up and wind down. Our bodies cool at sleep time, so warming ourselves up before bed and allowing us to cool down can assist in the falling asleep process – this is a great time for your child to read a book or for their parent to read to them.
Sometimes older children can be concerned about things like school tests or presentations, so creating a to-do-list for the next day can be a helpful way to ensure they’re not forgetting anything and allowing their minds to ‘switch off’ and unwind.
Be aware of meal size before bedtime
A small, healthy snack or glass of milk before bedtime might be beneficial for kids, but large meals should always be consumed a few hours before bedtime to allow the body to process the meal before trying to sleep.
Step away from the coffee
Consuming any caffeine before bed is big no-no. Caffeine is a known stimulant, so it will keep you awake. Something that parents might not know is that chocolate also contains caffeine – something to keep in mind for parents in winter.
Take technology out of the bedroom
Remove all technology from kids about an hour before bedtime. This removes them from the stimulating effect of excessive artificial light that devices deliver and lets them to start to relax. Research shows that those with technology in the bedrooms don't sleep as well as those without. The more devices in a bedroom, the worse the sleep.
Plan snack time
If you make a plan for breakfasts and healthier snack options at the beginning of the week, it can make life easier and increase the chances of healthier eating for our kids. When we leave food choices until we're hungry, or when we're rushing out the door, it’s more likely we’ll choose something that's quick or easy (generally meaning unhealthy), rather than something that's better for us.