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“Getting him to sleep earlier would help,” my son’s daycare teacher noted when my 2-year-old melted down — again — upon seeing me arrive for pickup. I nodded in agreement but silently thought: How on earth am I going to pull that off? Even with my husband pitching in, I’m lucky if I can get our tyke to bed at 7:30, as it requires commuting home from work, heating and eating dinner, bathing and changing him into PJs, reading books, and cuddling — all in less than an hour. One delayed train or temper tantrum, and the schedule is shot.
Now research, published in the journal Sleep Medicine, shows that I’m far from alone in my struggle. Just 18 percent of the nearly 250 preschoolers in the new STRONG Kids study are getting the 11 to 12 hours of nightly sleep that’s recommended by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. On average, the 3- to 5-year-olds whose families were polled are getting just 9.6 hours of shuteye a night. And the kids getting the fewest hours of sleep? Children of mothers who work full-time, naturally.
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“We think that it might be the more hours that mothers are working, the less time they have — and there may be some sort of tradeoff going on: ‘Do I spend quality time with my child? Or do we get to bed early?’” writes Katherine Spiers, a postdoctoral research associate in human and community development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Family Resiliency Center, which coordinated the findings. ”And then in the morning, when mothers leave for work, their children also wake up early to get to daycare.”
This sleep-deprivation data doesn’t just mean kids are getting crankier. It suggests overtired kids are actually at a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese within a year. Researchers weighed, measured, and calculated the body mass index (BMI) of each child at the start of the study. A year later, they did the same, finding that 17 percent of the preschoolers were overweight and 12 percent were obese. And the kids who had the higher BMIs at the second weigh-in were … the children of women who worked full-time.
Related: 7 Things I’ve Learned From Having an Overweight Toddler
"Studies show that the amount of nighttime sleep matters for regulating weight," writes fellow researcher and study co-author Janet Liechty, associate professor in UIUC’s School of Social Work and College of Medicine. Naps are helpful if the child needs them, Liechty tells Yahoo Parenting, but ensuring sufficient nighttime sleep hours is most important when it comes to weight.
“We don’t know exactly why this is so,” she explains. “But in general, we know that nighttime sleep can be more restorative overall than daytime sleep. This may partly be because nighttime sleep allows enough time for an individual to go through several full sleep cycles, including the beneficial REM cycle. Also there is some indication that sufficient nighttime rest helps regulate energy balance [meaning appetite and activity].”
But even if parents can’t change their schedules, they can aim to make improvements elsewhere. “Consider how much you’re engaging with them after lights out if it takes them ages to fall asleep,” pediatric sleep consultant Ingrid Prueher tells Yahoo Parenting. “Constantly getting tissues or a glass of water for children not only reinforces the idea that you’ll pop in when they want, but it can trigger wake-ups in kids looking for that engagement.” Create boundaries and reinforce them, she advises, explaining, “You want quality time over quantity.”
Changing your behavior can also help kids get into bed faster. “Look at the nighttime routine and see where you can streamline,” she suggests. “Crockpot dinners can save tons of cooking time, and laying out PJs in the morning leaves one less thing to do before bed.” Then keep yourself and your little one as mellow as possible. “Children feed off of our energy,” she says, urging parents not to stress out about making the appointed hour down to the minute. “So don’t wind them up with active presleep play. Dim the lights and help them relax quietly, and they’ll get into sleep mode faster.” And hopefully, so will you.