More junk food for children as Covid disrupts sleep patterns

Changes during pandemic could lead to rise in childhood obesity, warns research

The ongoing coronavirus crisis has disrupted the sleeping patterns of many Irish children and led to an increase in their consumption of so-called junk food, according to research published by the State’s leading food health authority on Thursday morning.

During the pandemic, the amount of time children are spending in front of screens has increased and their level of physical activity has decreased.

The changes could, the research warns, lead to an increase in the rates of childhood obesity here in the future unless they are checked.

The report, published by Safefood, suggests that since Covid-19 started spreading in Ireland, prompting school closures, 43 per cent of children are going to bed later while a similar amount are waking up later in the morning.


It also shows that, as a direct result of children experiencing changes in their sleep routine, 49 per cent are eating more unhealthy snacks or treats, 54 per cent are less active and 67 per cent are engaging in more screen-time, all of which can contribute to childhood obesity.

The research has prompted the food health watchdog, along with the HSE and Healthy Ireland, to encourage parents to ensure children’s bedtime is “back on track” ahead of the start of the school year.

The report says that, following an extensive period of time at home due to Covid-19, and with a gradual return to offices and school, “now more than ever there is a need for families to start putting a healthier routine back into daily life”.

It says 60 per cent of parents have expressed concern about getting their children back into a routine for school.

“Research shows that not getting enough sleep impacts on children’s health in many ways including increased risk of excess body weight,” said Dr Marian O’Reilly, chief nutrition specialist at Safefood.

“Sleep influences appetite hormones and being up for longer means there are more opportunities to eat, which can impact on their weight. Many parents have told us that they have found sleep, snacking, managing treat foods and other healthy behaviours difficult over recent months. A good sleep routine is the key to unlocking these challenges.”

‘Extra challenge’

Sarah O’Brien of the HSE’s Healthy Eating and Active Living programme said that while getting children back into a regular bedtime routine after the summer holidays was always a challenge in a normal year, it would be a “huge extra challenge” this year as a result of the extended school closures due to the pandemic.

Head of Heathy Ireland Kate O’Flaherty pointed to extensive research which has found that “establishing a bedtime routine is associated with better sleep for parents, a more active and healthier lifestyle and reduced family stress” which, she said, made it a “win-win for the whole family”.

"A fundamental role of childhood is building regulation in all aspects of life with sleep being the cornerstone of this regulation process," said Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychoanalytical psychotherapist.

“The key to this is regularity and consistency with consistent sleep patterns assisting your child to regulate all other aspects of their lives including appetite, energy, emotions and physical activity.”

Dr Noctor said in the days ahead, parents should focus on reducing screen-time and the consumption of sugary foods and drinks in the hours leading up to bedtime, while encouraging physical activity and the eating of fruit and vegetables during the day. He also said it was important to encourage relaxation skills and wind-down activities and “value sleep time within the family culture”.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast