Kids: Sleep Goes Down, Weight Goes Up

The evidence is undeniable: Sleep plays a critical role in helping children maintain a healthy weight, and protecting them from the health risks associated with being overweight and obese. 

The results of a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association indicate that every additional hour of sleep young children receive can reduce their risk of being overweight. Researchers in New Zealand studied the sleep habits and weight changes of 244 children between the ages of 3-7. To investigate the relationship between sleep and weight, they measured the children’s height, weight, BMI and body composition. They also tracked children’s sleep, physical activity, and diet at ages 3, 4, and 5. What did they find?

  • Kids who slept more between the ages of 3-5 had lower BMI at age 7 than their counterparts who slept less
  • Kids who slept more at 3-5 were also less likely to be overweight at age 7 than their peers who slept less
  • Because the researchers measured body composition (the body’s proportions of muscle, fat and bone mass), they were able to determine that the lower BMI was due to less fat, not to an increase in muscle and bone mass.

This study joins a large and growing body of evidence that sleep has a significant impact on children’s weight. Children who are sleep deprived are at greater risk for weight problems. The risk starts early, and can extend into adulthood. Recent research into the sleep-weight connection has shown:

  • Babies and toddlers who slept fewer than 12 hours per night had a greater risk of being overweight by the time they reached pre-school.
  • Teens who sleep less are more likely to reach for high-calorie snacks, to consume more total calories, and to get more of their calories from fat than teens who sleep more.
  • We know that poor sleep habits during childhood increase the risk of being overweight in adulthood.

Helping children develop strong sleep habits is an important investment in their long-term health. But how much sleep is enough?

Researchers in the current study reported that the children in their study slept 11 hours per night, on average. For children this young, this just isn’t enough. Kids need more sleep than adults – and not just very young children. Through adolescence, children require additional sleep. Here’s a quick rundown on children’s sleep needs, and tips for parents to help their children develop strong sleep habits:


New babies will sleep 11 to 18 hours day, but any new parent knows, there’s no predicting exactly when this sleeping will take place!

  • Stimulate your newborn with light and noise during the day, and create a quieter environment at night. This will help strengthen their developing internal clock.
  • Get enough sleep yourself! Parents of newborns are notoriously sleep deprived –especially moms – and lack of sleep can have consequences for both parent and child


Infants up to one year old need 9-12 hours of sleep per night, as well as naps during the day.

  • Put your infant to bed when she’s sleepy, not exhausted or already asleep. This will help strengthen your baby’s self-soothing skills, and help her develop her independence at bedtime


Children 1-3 years old need 12-14 hours of sleep per night. They’ll continue to need a nap during the day.

  • Create a bedtime routine. Kids will benefit from the consistency of a regular bedtime and a period of winding down before bed. A consistent sleep routine will continue to matter as your child ages. It’s important for us adults, too!


Children 3-5 need 11-13 hours per night. Their nighttime sleep is even more important now, since regular naps are often a thing of the past.

  • Turn off the television. There’s evidence that TV before bedtime disrupts children’s sleep – especially when it’s violent 


Children 5-12 need 10-11 hours of sleep per night. By this time, kids are getting busy – with school, sports, and social schedules. Their sleep is critical.

  • Be consistent. Don’t let busy schedules and extended playtime encroach on bedtime. Same time, same bed, every night. Keep bedrooms free of electronic media devices.


Adolescents/teens still need more sleep than adults, at least 9.25 hours per night. Teens can easily become sleep deprived, which can have serious consequences for their health.

  • Talk with your teens about sleep. Work together to set limits and boundaries –regular bedtimes, limits on electronic media – that everyone can stick to.

Promoting strong sleep habits in your children is a process that starts early and truly never stops. Your efforts can make all the difference in helping your child maintain a healthy weight and good overall heath over the length of their lives.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD 

The Sleep Doctor™