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Of all the many reasons cited to reduce kids’ time on screen, the link between screens and obesity gets trotted out pretty often. The thinking is that children who spend a lot of time sitting, either watching television or playing video games, are not running around and so are getting fatter. The connection between screens and obesity has come to seem logical.

Now a study from University of Michigan suggests that it’s not the screens and the sitting but the eating-while-sitting that makes the difference. Kids who watch television eat more while they sit than do kids who play video games. TV and snacking go hand-in-hand. For video gamers, snacking is a separate, not a simultaneous, activity.

In the study, over 1000 sixth-graders from 24 Michigan middle schools filled out a questionnaire that asked about the type and frequency of their screen usage, their snacking habits and what they ate and drank in the previous day. The students were divided into three groups: low screen time (less than 30 minutes per day), high TV time (2 to 6 hours of television daily), and high computer/video time (2 to 6 hours of video games daily).

The outcome was that kids who spent more time in front of any screen – television or video games – snack more than low-screen kids and choose less healthy snacks. They report eating one additional snack each day over the number reported by low-screen kids. But kids who watch television 2 to 6 hours a day were more likely to eat high-fat foods like chips and French fries than did the kids who play video games for 2 to 6 hours each day. Video gamers snacked but snacked on more healthy foods than television watchers.

The researchers suggest that television supports snacking because of food-focused commercials. Certainly advertisements for fast food, snack foods, and even for cooking shows dominate much of the commercial time on programs aimed at children and families. The programs themselves, including commercial-free movies for children, often include eating and snacking sequences, sometimes with specific products prominently “placed.” Video games have far less food-related content.

Video-gamers suggest that the vulnerability of the video equipment to crumbs and liquids inclines kids to keep food away from their computer screens. Parents are more likely to enforce a no-food rule at the computer or tablet than they are in front of the TV. In addition, video game play keeps hands busy. There are neither time nor fingers available to snacking.

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that, on average, children spend 7 hours a day on screen-based entertainment, of which 4 ½ hours are television. This is in addition to the 6 hours kids spend at school on a weekday. Obviously very little time is left over for active play. Whatever calories are consumed while sitting add up instead of being burned off.

There are many reasons to get kids up off the couch and out to play. The hazards of a sedentary lifestyle are important. It may be that not only the time devoted to screens matters but also which sort of screen. At the same time, keep these ideas in mind, no matter what screen your child is glued to:

  1. Limit snacking and especially restrict snacking to “good” foods. A peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk are better than chips and soda any day. Don’t keep foods in the house that are not good for your child to eat.
  2. Encourage your child to fast-forward past commercials when watching a recorded program and to mute the sound of commercials during live programs. There’s no need for your children to be a captive audience for marketers of products that are bad for them.
  3. As always, limit screen time. Notice that in the University of Michigan study there actually were sixth-graders who had less than a half hour of screen time each day and these kids were the healthiest. Start now to cut back. Replace screens with reading, outdoor play, Legos, arts and crafts, and board games.
  4. Set a good example. Limit your own screen time and your own snacking. What’s good for your kids is good for everyone in the family.

The more we keep kids active, mentally and physically, the healthier they will be.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

Drinking beverages that contain caffeine makes most people more alert and keeps them from falling asleep easily. “More alert” and “struggling to fall asleep” are not qualities most parents want in their small children. Yet, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, many young children and most older ones consume enough caffeine each day to interfere with both behavior and rest.

The study found that 75% of children aged 5 to 12 years old consume caffeine on a daily basis, mostly in caffeinated soda but also in tea, coffee, and, increasingly, in energy drinks. Parents of these children reported that some of the five-year-olds routinely drank as much caffeine as contained in a can of soda and children between 8 and 12 drank as much as contained in three cans. The more caffeine children in the study took in, the less they slept and the more erratic their behavior seemed.

While soda and other drinks form the most obvious source of caffeine for kids, the Food and Drug Administration points out that caffeine is added to many other foods in which parents might not suspect it. Gum, jelly beans, marshmallows, candy bars, and even potato chips all may contain caffeine. All this caffeine adds up. In fact, the study notes that soda consumption among children has fallen in recent years, suggesting that parents might be more aware of soda’s ill effects, but that caffeine consumption overall has increased.

What’s the solution for your child?

  1. Eliminate or sharply reduce obvious sources of caffeine for all children, even teens. Limit access to soda, tea, coffee and energy drinks and monitor how much your child is getting, both at home and away.
  2. Pay attention to labels of processed foods, including candy. Food manufacturers are required to list it if they add it to a food. It’s important to realize, though, that manufacturers do not need to list caffeine if it occurs in the food naturally. Those chocolate-covered espresso beans are full of caffeine but it won’t be on the label!
  3. Consider your child’s diet if he’s struggling to fall asleep or is much more bouncy than a child should be. You know from your own experience that caffeine can make you feel jittery, hyperactive, headachy, and unsettled. Remember that caffeine’s effects last for several hours.

The city of Los Angeles is considering by children because of the possible harm done by caffeine.  Maybe you should consider restricting caffeine in your kids too.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

A lot of parents sleep with an infant in the bed. One recent study found that 41% of mothers always or often sleep with their baby, and another study found 70 to 80% of parents share their bed with a baby or child.

The reason is obvious to anyone who remembers life with a newborn. Co-sleeping may be the only way exhausted parents get any sleep at all. Instead of getting up to feed or comfort an infant every two hours, a new mother can nurse her baby right in bed, without even fully opening her eyes. Advocates of co-sleeping believe that babies who sleep in their parents’ bed sleep better, are calmer, and gain weight more quickly.

But pediatricians and public health officials warn against co-sleeping. Some of (but not all) SIDS deaths in 2010, for example, occurred when babies were sleeping with adults. Doctors are quite reasonably concerned. However, telling parents “not ever” to bed-share cuts off conversation about safe ways to sleep with an infant if that’s what parents want to do. It makes moms and dads hide their family’s sleeping arrangements and that may keep them from learning key tips.

So, in the interest of child safety and parents’ rest and sanity, here are some co-sleeping tips:

  1. Both parents should agree to invite baby into their bed. Only if both mom and dad are happy with this arrangement can it be certain that both parents will follow the rest of the safety tips.
  2. Neither parent should go to bed intoxicated or otherwise impaired. This means that parents should not be under the influence of sleeping pills or other medications that make them groggy.
  3. Second-hand smoke represents another risk factor for co-sleeping babies. Second-hand smoke is a known SIDS risk and parents who smoke bring  smoke particles with them wherever they are. The risk to a baby of second-hand smoke increases when in close proximity to a smoker for the entire night, even if the parent never smokes in the bedroom.
  4. Obesity is another parent characteristic that argues against co-sleeping.
  5. Sleep surfaces should be firm and flat and placed so that the baby cannot be trapped between a parent and the wall. Bedding should be minimal. Keep babies away from pillows and on top of blankets, not under them.
  6. Just as in her own crib, a co-sleeping baby should sleep on her back.
  7. If you are not breastfeeding, put your baby to sleep in his own bed. You have to get up to bottle feed him anyway.

Bed-sharing has been shown to make breastfeeding more successful and to promote regulations of infant breathing and body temperature. Done right, co-sleeping may actually protect against SIDS. Certainly, down through human history, bed-sharing has been the norm.

This may become an issue in your own household, as your infant grows into a toddler and then a preschooler. Without an exit-plan, you and your partner may find that co-sleeping has become the norm for your children. Kicking them out and into their own rooms gets more difficult older the children get. An infant in the bed is one thing. A wiggly, squirmy, bed-hogging child or two is quite another.

If you decide to co-sleep your infant, your pediatrician may frown. The American Academy of Pediatrics is still dead-set against it. But at least you can be confident you’re doing bed-sharing right.



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.