How to make nutrition work for your child’s sleep

This week is Healthy Eating Week (14th to 20th June 2021), a campaign from the British Nutrition Foundation to help us all improve our health and wellbeing.

We all know that eating a healthy balanced diet is good for growth and development in children (plus a whole load of additional benefits!), but what about specifically for sleep?

The right foods at the right time can definitely make the difference between a good nights sleep and a disturbed one. 

Sleep chemicals

There are special sleep chemicals produced naturally within the body, but also found in certain foods, that all help towards a good nights sleep.

Melatonin: A hormone naturally produced by the pineal gland in the brain which impacts the sleep-wake cycle. It is ‘timed’ to be released by our circadian rhythm each bedtime to help promote sleep, and more importantly, stay asleep. However, light inhibits the production of melatonin. So even if the body clock is set by a regular bedtime, melatonin will not be released by the pineal gland until a person is in a darker environment.

Tryptophan: An amino acid found in certain foods which is a precursor to sleep inducing compounds serotonin and melatonin. A carbohydrate rich meal stimulates the release of insulin which clears the path to the brain by removing all other amino acids. So foods containing tryptophan alongside a carb heavy meal can help in the run up to bedtime.

Serotonin: A neurotransmitter that promotes the build up of homeostatic sleep pressure which, alongside the body’s circadian clock, is vital for being able to fall asleep at the end of each day.

Sleep vitamins

Calcium helps the brain make the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Dairy products often contain both calcium and tryptophan so are great for better sleep.

Magnesium is a vitamin that works as a muscle relaxant and plays a role in improving sleep quality. Low magnesium levels are often linked to insomnia, restlessness and poor sleep quality. Maintaining healthy levels of magnesium promotes deep, restorative sleep.

A core symptom of iron deficiency is fatigue which you would think would help your child’s ability to sleep. But fatigue works in the same way as overtired-ness, making it far more difficult for a child to fall asleep and more crucially, stay asleep. Low iron is also linked to restless leg syndrome like magnesium.

Lastly, there’s vitamin B6, which as been shown in a recent study to improve sleep quality. It helps aid sleep by converting tryptophan into serotonin.

What foods contain these magical sleep inducing chemicals and vitamins?

Nutrition throughout the day is important but a well balanced evening meal can really help with the body’s sleep chemistry. Try including some or all of the following food groups in your child’s last meal.

Dairy contains tryptophan which is used by the body to create serotonin and melatonin.

Protein also contains good levels of tryptophan, especially fish, poultry and nuts.

Whole grains – complex carbs release slowly to avoid blood sugar dips overnight.

Fruits such as apples, cherries and bananas all contain great sleep nutrients.

Honey releases insulin in the body which helps tryptophan reach the brain.

Providing a dinner containing a combo of carbs and proteins really can help you and your little one sleep better.

As well as eating the right foods for optimal sleep, it’s also crucial to eat at the right time too.

Your child’s last big meal should ideally be around 2 hours before bedtime in order to avoid early rising from hunger, but also giving time to digest too.

Little ones that are in nursery are more likely to fall into this category as nursery meals are often given as early as 3-4pm. With most bedtimes at around 7-7:30pm, it’s just too early to eat and sustain a full nights sleep.

How do you combat this?

Well if it’s out of your control to adjust to a more suitable dinner time, offer a good bedtime snack.

Do you have a picky/snacky eater and wonder how to best fill them up for bedtime on one small meal rather than a big dinner? Do you scramble for snack ideas once you’ve picked your child up from nursery because they’ve eaten dinner so early? Does your child have after school clubs that finish late and you have to fit in meals around them?

Whatever the reason, life isn’t always straightforward with kids and our own schedules, so if you’re searching for some quick ideas to maximise on nutrients for sleep, here’s my top 5 bedtime snacks to provide the perfect sleep-inducing balance:

  • nut butters on wholewheat crackers
  • cherry smoothie with milk
  • banana porridge
  • egg on wholemeal seeded toast with avocado

  • natural/greek yoghurt with honey & granola

How important is milk beyond a year?

Once babies reach their first birthday, they no longer need formula as a meal or drink and can switch to cow’s milk or a dairy alternative. I often find when chatting to parents that there’s confusion over when to stop offering milk, and how much they need as part of their overall diet.

The NHS guidelines suggest that a child over one year of age should be having around 350ml of milk OR 2-3 portions of dairy as part of their diet.

As seen above, milk can be a great bedtime drink containing lots of sleepy hormones, plus for some toddlers it be a comfort to aid wind down just before bed. So there’s no need to stop offering milk as a bedtime drink if your child enjoys it, just make the switch to a cup and brush their teeth afterwards to protect them from tooth decay.

However, if you want to drop the bedtime milk altogether, just incorporate a milk drink at another time in the day, add it to cereal, or offer cheese and yoghurt in their meals and snacks.

Sugar rush

Although sugar can increase activity levels temporarily in children (we’ve all seen the sugar rush affect right?!), unless the activity is immediately before bedtime then sugar won’t directly have an impact on sleep. If you’re child is very active into the evening (regardless of sugar or no sugar!), this will have an impact on their ability to wind down and fall asleep easily. So there’s yet another great reason for a well-defined, consistent bedtime routine, regardless of age.

However, the more sugar consumed during the day, the more energy crashes your child will experience after sugar consumption. These dips create a disturbed sleep schedule which has an impact on night time sleep. Energy levels need to be kept as even as possible throughout the day to ensure the body is ready for a good nights sleep. Refined sugar also knocks blood sugar levels off balance so it’s another reason to choose whole grain for your child’s meals and steer clear of white carbs wherever possible.

If you’re struggling with sleep, get in touch for a free 15 minute assessment call to find out how I can help. You can also sign up to the HushaBoo email updates to be the first to find out about future blogs. Or follow HushaBoo on social media…

Blogged by Emma Osborne, Paediatric Sleep Specialist, founder of HushaBoo & Mum to one little boy who loves his food just like his Mama!

Eat your way to sleep

by Jun 15, 2021Sleep Nutrition0 comments