One shockingly simple way to ward off childhood obesity

I don’t think it’s ever too early to start paying attention to your child’s weight. I was an overweight child myself. And some of my most traumatic memories stem from that time in my life.

Granted, it was a different era. So the number of overweight and obese kids was significantly lower. But the stigma — to say nothing of the health consequences, like type 2 diabetes and fatty liver — remains just as damaging to this generation of obese children.

That’s exactly why I wrote my first book, Feed Your Kids Well. It was my attempt to help others help their kids. And if only more people had heeded my warnings at the time — instead of laughing off the suggestion that overweight children won’t just “grow out of it” — maybe our country’s kids wouldn’t be suffering through this tragic epidemic today.

But obviously, that’s not what happened. And instead, we have a skyrocketing population of heavy children who will go on to struggle with their weight and health throughout their entire lives.

As a doctor, it’s hard not to feel helpless. So I’m always thrilled when I come across research that offers common sense solutions that any parent or grandparent can adopt. And I came across something like this in a medical journal just the other day.

It sparked my interest not only because it’s so simple — but because it shows that small steps you take with your kids, even as toddlers, can have a huge impact on their health today — and down the road.

New research shows that following strict bedtime routines with your toddler could help to ward off future weight problems. And the influence is stronger than you might expect. This study showed that preschool aged children whose bedtimes dragged out until after 9 p.m might face twice the risk of obesity later in life.

It seems almost incomprehensible to me that parents wouldn’t have a set bed time routine for their children — especially toddlers and preschoolers. But apparently, it is a problem. And the ballooning weight of our nation’s kids may be a reflection of that.

This research team used data from nearly 1,000 children, all of whom were participants in a health study that started back in the early 90s. At age 4, the kids were assigned to one of three categories, according to their bedtimes — 8 p.m or earlier, between 8 p.m and 9 p.m., and after 9 p.m.

The team then compared these bedtime regimens with the children’s rates of obesity at the age of 15. And their findings were eye-opening.

As it turns out, only 10 percent of the children with the earliest bedtimes went on to become obese teens. That number jumped to 16 percent among the children with bedtimes between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. And among the children with bedtimes after 9 p.m., 23 percent became obese teens.

In the end, the kids whose bedtimes were the latest and whose routines featured the least parental involvement were at the highest risk of growing up to be obese.

Obviously, an early bedtime isn’t a magic bullet against obesity problems. (It didn’t help me. I did have a very strict bedtime — and it was before 9 p.m.) But if you see your child struggling with his or her weight — and even if you don’t — teaching good sleep hygiene is one way that you may be able to make a difference.

We all want our children to grow up to be healthy. We try to give them the right advice, to lead by example — yet somehow, these messages and good intentions often get lost. So the next time the business of life seems to be getting away from you, be sure to take a moment to slow down and reconnect.

Make time for your kids. Set firm, gentle limits and a good example. And you’ll give them the best gift they’ll ever receive: a lifetime of good health.