*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on U.S. News & World Report.
A new study says parents of preschoolers can do three simple things -- regulate meals, bedtime and screen time -- and not only improve their child's emotional health, but also substantially cut down on the likelihood their child will be obese.
Previous studies have shown that the risk of obesity for children decreased when preschoolers got enough sleep, ate meals with their families, and had limits on their screen time. The new research is the first to ever take a look at family structure routines and health outcomes in their preteen years.
The study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, found a link between those early, preschool routines and the ability for very young children to learn how to self-regulate their emotions, and later on with problems regarding weight gain and obesity.
This type of research is no longer a surprise for social and behavioral scientists, but the study shows clearly that family structure matters. Problems linked to obesity later in life were found in children with greater "emotional dysregulation." Researchers for this study (and others) measure emotional self-regulation in young children based on responses from parents to questions about how easily their child becomes frustrated or over-excited. Children with less ability to self-regulate have greater emotional dysregulation.
What the study found was that preschoolers with better self-regulated emotional health – which is fostered by regular bedtimes, regular meals and limited screen time – appear to have better emotional and physical health outcomes later. Children with greater emotional dysregulation were more likely to be obese later in life.
"This study provides more evidence that routines for preschool-aged children are associated with their healthy development and could reduce the likelihood that these children will be obese," said the lead author, Sarah Anderson, a professor at Ohio State's College of Public Health.
The researchers were able to study nearly 11,000 children as part of a long-term study that has tracked children's activities and health outcomes for more than a decade. The Millennium Cohort Study observed a diverse population of children born in the United Kingdom in 2001-2002.
The researchers found that at age 3, 41 percent always had a regular bedtime, 47 percent had a regular mealtime schedule and 23 percent had their screen time (TV and videos) limited to less than an hour a day. At age 11, about 6 percent were obese.
Researchers also found that one of the three family routines for preschoolers – a regular bedtime schedule – might be the most important of all.
The research showed that the absence of a regular preschool bedtime routine is an independent predictor of obesity at 11. The risk of obesity was greatest for those with the least amount of consistency in their bedtimes, compared to those who "always" had a regular bedtime.