Longitudinal Associations Between Self-Regulation and Health Across Childhood and Adolescence

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Objective: There is some evidence to suggest that one’s ability to delay gratification is associated with a lower body mass index (BMI) and slower overall weight gain. Less is known about the role that a broader set of self-regulatory skills, including attention focusing, inhibitory control, and impulsivity, might play in fostering not only a healthy weight but also better overall health and health-related behaviors such as sleep. Method: Participants in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development were followed from birth through age 15 beginning in 1991. Self-regulation was assessed when children were 4.5 years old, whereas health-related outcomes were assessed regularly between toddlerhood and adolescence. Structural equation modeling was used to test direct associations between self-regulation and either physical health or sleep in childhood and adolescence. Results: Findings suggest that there are long-term benefits of self-regulation, indexed by multiple dimensions, for children’s health-related outcomes. Children with better self-regulatory skills demonstrated smaller increases in standardized BMI scores and maintained greater mother-reported health across childhood and adolescence. Furthermore, better self-regulation predicted fewer sleep problems and longer sleep duration when children were 8 and 11 but not when they were 15. Conclusions: Early self-regulation, marked by numerous skills, appears to have long-term benefits for children’s health-related outcomes. These findings provide some evidence that targeting childhood self-regulatory skills for improvement may help reduce poor health-related outcomes later in life and offer important insight into potential avenues for intervention.

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