Children who skip breakfast and get less sleep more likely to become overweight or obese

22 November 2016
Child sleeping

Children who skip breakfast and don’t have a regular bedtime or sufficient sleep appear to be more likely to become overweight or obese.

That’s according to new research led by University College London and published in the US Journal Pediatrics.

The study looks at the patterns of body mass index (BMI) and weight development in the first 10 years of a child’s life and examines the lifestyle factors that appear to predict weight gain. 

Along with skipping breakfast and insufficient sleep, mothers smoking in pregnancy also appeared to be indicative of likely excessive weight gain in childhood.

All three are early life factors which can be modified and highlight the possibility that interventions could have an impact in reducing rates of children who are obese or overweight.

The research is based on the Millennium Cohort Study, a study of children born into 19,244 families in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002. Data on weight and height was collected when the children were 3, 5, 7 and 11 years of age.  

The research used observational information which does not allow firm cause and effect conclusions to be drawn. However, the results are based on data from thousands of children and the researchers were able to take account of many of the influences on the development of a child’s weight.

“It is well known that children of overweight or obese mothers are more likely to be overweight themselves, probably reflecting the ‘obesogenic’ environment and perhaps a genetic predisposition to gain weight,” says lead researcher Professor Yvonne Kelly.

“This study shows that disrupted routines, exemplified by irregular sleeping patterns and skipping breakfast, could influence weight gain through increased appetite and the consumption of energy-dense foods. These findings support the need for intervention strategies aimed at multiple spheres of influence on BMI growth.”

Smoking in pregnancy has been linked to a higher risk of a child being overweight, possibly due to a link between foetal tobacco exposure and infant motor co-ordination which could be a developmental pathway to BMI growth.

The study identified four patterns of weight development:

  • 83.3%, had a stable non-overweight BMI

  • 13.1% had moderately increasing BMIs

  • 2.5% had steeply increasing BMIs

  • 0.6% had BMIs in the obese range at the age of 3 but were similar to the stable group by the age of 7.

Girls were more likely to be in the “moderately increasing” group while Pakistani, Black Caribbean and Black African children were more likely to belong to the “high increasing” group.

The research also looked at other factors to see what influence, if any, they had on children’s weight.

After taking account of background factors, breastfeeding and the early introduction of solid food were not associated with children’s weight. Likewise, sugary drink consumption, fruit intake, TV viewing and sports participation were not strong predictors of unhealthy weight gain.

The study was supported by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council.

Find out more by reading the paper in Pediatrics.