Obesity And Lack Of Sleep

Can a Lack of Sleep Cause Obesity in Children and Teens?


by David J Breland, MD, MPH


Recent research presented in Vancouver, B.C at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting suggest that it can.  Researcher Leslie A. Lytle at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute along with colleagues conducted a study of 723 adolescents who were obese.  Researchers asked the following questions: 1) What teens ate at school, 2) How active they are, and 3) How much sleep they get at night.  They found that for boys and younger children, not getting enough sleep is a risk factor for childhood obesity.  In adults, studies linking sleep and obesity do not always have the same results. But in children and adolescents, short sleep is consistently associated with a higher body mass. 


Typically children 5 to 12 years old should get 10 to 11 hours of sleep a night.  As preteens become adolescents, their sleep patterns change.  This change is called a Sleep Phase Shift. It happens as a result of changes in hormones, since teens need a little less sleep than preteens – about 9 to 9 ¼ hours each night. But life changes influence sleep patterns, too. Teens often stay up later to do social activities, homework and electronic chatting with friends.  As a result, this can lead to insomnia, which causes more sleep loss.  The optimal sleep amount for adolescents is about 9 to 9 ¼ hours per night.  A survey from the National Sleep Foundation found that 80% of teens in the United States were getting less then the recommended hours of sleep.


So how does this work?

Unfortunately the exact relationship between less sleep in children and weight gain is not very well understood.  Even though we are not sure exactly what causes the relationship, these are some things that might explain it:

  • Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis causes fatigue, which could lead to less physical activity. 
  • Less sleep may affect hormones in the body that make teens hungrier, even though their body does not need the extra food. 
  • Getting less sleep might give teens more time during the day to eat.


What can parents do?

Sleep tips for school-age and teenage children:

  • Teach children and teens about healthy sleep habits.
  • Continue to emphasize a need for regular and consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine.
  • Make sure that your child or teens’ bedroom is a good place to sleep.  For example, it should be dark, cool, and quiet.
  • Keep TV and computers out of the bedroom. Have your child or teen avoid answering texts from friends after bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine (chocolate, caffeinated soda or teas) just before bed.

Additional resources for parents and teens: http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_body/take_care/how_much_sleep.html




1. National Sleep Foundation. Sleep in America poll  2006  [cited 2010 July 21]; Available from: http://www.sleepfoundation.org.

2. Leslie A. Lytle, K.P., Kian Farbaksh. Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development. Is Sleep Related to Obesity in Young Adolescents? in PAS. 2010. Vancouver Convention Center, Canada.

3. Patel, S.R. and F.B. Hu, Short sleep duration and weight gain: a systematic review. Obesity (Silver Spring), 2008. 16(3): p. 643-53.

4. Owens, J.A., K. Belon, and P. Moss, Impact of delaying school start time on adolescent sleep, mood, and behavior. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 164(7): p. 608-14.

5. American Academy of Pediatrics. A Minute for Kids Audio Files: Teen Sleep Patterns  2010  [cited 2010 July 20]; Available from: http://patiented.aap.org/content.aspx?aid=6776.