The impact of food on children's sleep

Many parents underestimate the impact their child's diet has on their sleep. In this blog I've tried to answer some questions I regularly get asked and also explain some of reasons why diet can impact your child's sleep.

Many people ask me if bottle fed babies sleep better than breastfed babies. Sleep issues are very rarely due to the method of feeding. My clients are 50% breastfeeding and 50% bottle feeding. If you are breastfeeding and your baby isn’t sleeping, don’t think that switching to formula will make them magically start sleeping through the night. As long as your baby is being
fed, that is all that matters!

Another question I often get asked is when to wean a baby. Sometimes people get a lot pressure from older generations (who used to wean
babies as early as 3 months) to start weaning if the baby isn’t sleeping well. They believe it’s down to the baby being hungry and needing solid food. There are instances where babies are ready to start solids at 5 or 5 and half months, but the general guideline is that babies shouldn’t start weaning onto solid food until around 6 months. It is a general rule though and each child is an individual
and their parent will know when the best time is for them to start. If your baby has good head control, they can sit up unaided, they have good hand to mouth co-ordination and they are showing a real interest in food and trying to grab food, then they may be ready to start weaning onto solid foods.

When you do start weaning, you can choose to do baby-led weaning (which is giving your baby finger food and allowing them to feed themselves) or purees (pureeing food and spoon feeding your baby) or some people do a mixture of the two to start with. There are pro’s and con’s to both methods, you just need to choose what feels right for you and your baby.

For reflux babies and babies with a lot of allergies or potential allergies, then early weaning can be beneficial, but this must be done under the strict advice of a doctor / paediatrician. If you are concerned about allergies, then really monitor any food you give to your baby and keep a food diary to see if there are any symptoms which flare up after a particular type
of food. Be aware when introducing food to babies, they do have a strong gag reflex which is totally normal. Coughing is normal also. If a child is choking they are normally silent. If you are concerned about choking, please do a first aid course to learn what to do if you think your little one is choking on their food.

Please ensure, which ever way you introduce food to your baby (baby led or purees), that it’s healthy and homemade food you’re giving to your little one. Processed foods have added E numbers and chemicals. Two major stimulants in food are sugar and caffeine and these really affect our sleep. Chocolate contains both caffeine and sugar, so please don’t give it to a baby. With toddlers, make sure it’s a rare treat and make sure they aren’t having chocolate or a chocolate pudding at tea time, as this is likely to affect their sleep. A healthier dessert is plain Greek yoghurt with fresh fruit or a homemade fruit compote. Or if they’re dairy intolerant, then coconut yoghurt or rice pudding made with coconut milk.

There are foods which can have a calming affect on the body. There is an amino acid called Tryptophan, which produces a chemical called serotonin. This allows our body to make Melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone which promotes sleep in our bodies.

There are lots of foods which contain Tryptophan, such as cheese, eggs, poultry, milk, bananas, wheat, oats, fish, leafy greens, beans, nuts and seeds. Make sure you are giving your child a varied diet and they will inevitably be getting Tryptophan. It’s also important to serve food containing Tryptophan with complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates cause the release of insulin, which helps Tryptophan reach the brain and cause sleepiness. Some meal ideas include whole-wheat pasta with a cheese sauce and spinach. Also an egg sandwich on whole wheat bread makes an excellent lunch. Salmon or Turkey with stir fried veg and brown rice are also excellent choices.

Magnesium, is another good food which promotes sleep. It can be found in nuts, wild rice, brown rice and shredded wheat. Magnesium is a muscle relaxant and helps us to relax and prepare for sleep.

If your child is already weaned onto solid foods and is having issues with their sleep, do look at their diet. The food they are having or not having can have a real impact on their sleep.

As well as ensuring your child is having a healthy and varied diet, you should ensure that their dinner time isn’t too close to their bedtime. The optimum time is 2 hours before they go to sleep. Therefore if they are going to sleep at 7 or 7.30 pm, you need to ensure their dinner is no later than 5 or 5.30 pm. When your body is preparing for sleep your body temperature begins to drop. However, when you eat food and your body is busy digesting it, this brings your body temperature up (which means It interferes with your body’s preparation for sleep).

Fussy eating can go hand in hand with sleep issues. For example, If you have a toddler who is still drinking bottles and bottles of milk during the night, they are going to be
unlikely to want their breakfast in the morning. You need to look at cutting back the milk at night time, so they are taking their calorie requirements during the day.

If you do have a child who is a fussy eater, keep offering them new food but take away the pressure. If they refuse it, try and adopt a relaxed approach. Don’t force them to eat the food you have given them but do NOT offer them an alternative. They will start to realise if they’re hungry, that they need to eat what is being offered, when it is offered.

If you have any concerns about your child’s appetite or introducing them to food, please do speak to your doctor or paediatrician.

For any other advice regarding your little one’s sleep, then please do get in touch!


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