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How Lack of Sleep Can Increase Diabetes Risks for Children

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
parents playfully wrestling with child

Parents are often told how important it is for kids to get ample rest. But one recent study has shown that children who sleep less are not just crankier in the mornings, they're also at a higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

The study, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, followed 4,500 children ages 9 and 10. It found that the kids who slept, on average, one hour longer each night than others in the study had lower body mass indexes (BMI), insulin resistance and fasting glucose – all markers for diabetes.

“There have long been links between decreased sleep duration/quality and insulin resistance,” says pediatric endocrinologist Ryan Farrell, MD.

Researchers found that increasing sleep duration by even 30 minutes could help decrease BMI and insulin resistance. Considering that diabetes is on the rise in the U, easy-to-implement, inexpensive interventions – such as getting your child to bed earlier – are helpful tools for parents to have, says Dr. Farrell.

Children and Diabetes

Today, about 208,000 people younger than 20 years have been diagnosed and are living with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are two types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes – which used to be referred to as juvenile diabetes – occurs when the pancreas stops making insulin totally.

“Typically, type 1 diabetes is much more common than type 2 diabetes in children and young adults,” Dr. Farrell says.

Researchers are unsure why type 1 diabetes occurs but believe it may be the result of a genetic link, triggered by environmental factors.

“A lot of times parents have guilt that they could have prevented their children from getting type 1 diabetes, but most of the time they couldn’t,” he says. “I tell them it’s not anyone’s fault.”

Type 2 diabetes – which was formerly called adult-onset diabetes – occurs when the body stops being able to process insulin properly. While fewer children have type 2 diabetes, the disease is increasing at a much quicker rate than type 1.

“It’s becoming a much more common diagnosis in pediatrics,” Dr. Farrell says.

Type 2 diabetes may also have a genetic component. According to the CDC, people who are Hispanic, African American, American Indian, Asian American or Pacific Islander are at a disproportionately higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who are Caucasian.

But researchers have also found that sedentary lifestyles and the rising obesity epidemic are contributors to the disease.

“Kids who remain at a healthy weight, stay physically active and avoid foods that are highly processed can decrease their risks of developing the disease,” Dr. Farrell says.

Symptoms of Diabetes in Children

Increased thirst and excessive urination are two of the most common symptoms of diabetes in children, Dr. Farrell says. Other possible tell-tale symptoms include:

  • Unusual weight loss, although your child is still eating without problems
  • Bedwetting, after your child has already been potty trained
  • Weight gain
  • Tiredness
  • Blurry vision
  • Moody behavior
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting

Controlling blood sugar (glucose) levels is the major goal of any diabetes treatment in order to prevent complications of the disease. Type 1 –an autoimmune disease – can only be treated with insulin. Children with type 2 diabetes may also require insulin treatment. In certain less severe cases, however, type 2 can be managed with oral medications to bring down blood sugar levels. Normally, this course of treatment is prescribed in combination with weight loss and lifestyle and exercise changes, Dr. Farrell says.

If your child is diagnosed with diabetes, the most important things you can do is be supportive and ensure that their blood sugar levels are being checked frequently, Dr. Farrell says. It’s also helpful to remind your child that plenty of successful athletes, singers and professionals have diabetes and are thriving.

“We always try to tell children with new diagnoses of diabetes that they can still live a full and healthy life,” he says.

Ryan Farrell, MD is a pediatric endocrinologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. You can request an appointment with Dr. Farrell or any other doctor online.