View all news

Preschoolers’ eating, activity and sleep behaviours were impacted during first COVID-19 lockdown, study suggests

Press release issued: 10 December 2020

Preschool children’s eating, activity, and sleep routines were disrupted during the spring COVID-19 lockdown, which may be detrimental to child health and development a study suggests. Parents of children (aged three- to five-year-old) due to start school in September 2020 shared their children’s experiences of the spring lockdown with academics from the Universities of Bristol, Birmingham and Glasgow.

The study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and published on the preprint server MedRxiv, provides important insights into the impact of lockdown restrictions on health behaviours of preschool children in the UK.

Twenty parents in the South West and West Midlands took part in the interviews. Half the sample were from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds and half lived in the most deprived quintile.

The researchers explored how ‘lockdown’ and its subsequent easing changed young children’s everyday activities, eating and sleep habits to gain insight into the impact for health and wellbeing.

The study found the spring COVID-19 lockdown negatively impacted on pre-school children’s eating, activity and sleep routines. While some positive changes were reported, there were wide-spread reports of lack of routines, habits and boundaries which, at least in the short-term, were likely to have been detrimental for child health and development.

Dr Beki Langford, Research Fellow at the Bristol Medical School: Population Health Sciences, said: "With on-going restrictions likely, families need support to establish revised routines which maintain healthy behaviours without increasing parental burden or guilt. Rates of overweight and obesity in children starting school are high, so the longer-term impacts of these restrictions on younger children must be monitored."

Dr Jo Clarke, Research Fellow from the University of Birmingham, added: "Parents reported children ate more snacks during lockdown, but also spent more time preparing meals and eating as a family. Most parents reported a reduction in their children’s physical activity and an increase in screen time, which some linked to difficulties in getting their child to sleep."

The researchers suggest guidance and support for families during times of COVID-19 restrictions could be valuable to help them maintain healthy activity, eating, screen-time and sleeping routines to protect child health and ensure unhealthy habits are not adopted.

The research compliments the recent Ipsos Mori report from the Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, which included an online survey of 1,000 parents of 0- to five-year-olds in October 2020. The survey focused on parents’ experiences of the preceding six months during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most surveys exploring COVID-19 impacts on children and young people have focused on mental health and wellbeing, and on older children and young people. Less attention has been paid to younger (preschool) children or how COVID restrictions might impact health behaviours such as physical activity, sedentary behaviour, dietary intake and sleep.

Preprint paper

'Impact of COVID-19 restrictions on preschool children’s eating, activity and sleep behaviours: a qualitative study' by Clarke JL, Kipping R, Chambers S, Willis K, Taylor H, Brophy R, Hannam K, Simpson SA, Langford R in MedRxiv

Please note this is a preprint, so it is a preliminary piece of research that has not yet been through peer review and has not been published in a scientific journal – so this is early data

Further information

About the National Institute for Health Research
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the UK's largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

  • Funds, supports and delivers high quality research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care
  • Engages and involves patients, carers and the public in order to improve the reach, quality and impact of research
  • Attracts, trains and supports the best researchers to tackle the complex health and care challenges of the future
  • Invests in world-class infrastructure and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services
  • Partners with other public funders, charities and industry to maximise the value of research to patients and the economy

The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR commissions applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.

Support our COVID-19 research
Bristol’s researchers are part of a global network of scientists responding urgently to the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic.

Find out how you can support their critical work

Bristol UNCOVER Group
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, researchers at the University of Bristol formed the Bristol COVID Emergency Research Group (UNCOVER) to pool resources, capacities and research efforts to combat this infection.

Bristol UNCOVER includes clinicians, immunologists, virologists, synthetic biologists, aerosol

scientists, epidemiologists and mathematical modellers and has links to behavioural and social scientists, ethicists and lawyers.

Follow Bristol UNCOVER on Twitter at:

For more information about the University of Bristol’s coronavirus (COVID-19) research priorities visit:

Edit this page