“Now I lay me down to sleep, / I pray the Lord my soul to keep. / Wait, can I have some more ice cream?” –Children’s Prayer

In many households, the once clandestine bedtime, or midnight, snack may now be categorized as an officially sanctioned meal, like “second breakfast.” With more than a third of American adults obese, children and adults alike tend to graze throughout the day, like herd animals on the African savannah.

Thus, researchers postulating possible solutions to the growing problem of childhood obesity surmised that prolonging the one time of day when many children aren’t eating — at night, when they’re sleeping — might lower the risk. In a study of 37 children, ages 8-11, investigators from Brown University and the Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I., experimented with bedtimes. Some of the children slept longer or for shorter periods of time, after which they reversed schedules. On average, children in the experimental group slept two hours and 21 minutes longer than the others.

Some 27% Of The Study Children Were Obese
The rotund eight-year-old, Eric Cartman of Comedy Central's long-running South Park, loves to eat "Cheesy Poofs." YouTube

As expected, children who slept longer at night experienced healthier outcomes than otherwise. On average, children consumed 134 fewer calories per day, weighed a half-pound less, and experienced lower fasting levels of leptin, a regulatory hormone highly correlated with the amount of adipose tissue.

Some 27 percent of the children in the study were obese.

"Findings from this study suggest that enhancing school-age children's sleep at night could have important implications for prevention and treatment of obesity," Chantelle Hart, now an associate professor of public health at Temple University, said in a statement. "The potential role of sleep should be further explored."

To that end, Hart is currently investigating the use of a brief behavioral intervention designed to increase children’s nighttime sleep, endeavoring to learn whether prolonged sleep would significantly alter behavior and health outcomes over time. At the very least, no child will be harmed by this attempt to lower obesity rates, Hart says. “Give all of its documented benefits, in many ways, you can’t lose in promoting a good night’s sleep.”

In the United States, childhood obesity has more than doubled during the past 30 years in the age group studied by Hart and her colleagues, while adolescents experienced a tripling of the obesity rate. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of obese children rose from seven percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent by 2010, while the rate for adolescents rose from five percent to 18 percent.

Aside from possible psychological effects, as seen in an attendant rise in eating disorders among boys and girls alike, obesity brings myriad physical health problems. Some 70 percent of children and adolescents with obesity — from kindergarten to high school graduate — experienced at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Such kids were also more likely to experience pre-diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social stigmatization. Although obesity comes as a multifactorial problem, the result of interplay among genetic, behavioral, and environmental influences, researchers continue to search for simple interventions in an effort to stem the growing problem.

Source: Hart CN, Carskadon MA, Considine RV, Fava JL, Lawton J. Changes In Children's Sleep Duration On Food Intake, Weight, And Leptin. Pediatrics. 2013.