Ever since I saw the two lines on my pregnancy test, I started worrying about my baby’s diet. Will breastfeeding be easy? How do you sterilize a baby bottle? What if he has a food intolerance? When should I introduce gluten? Will he be a picky eater? How do you cook a 3-course menu three times a day, every day, and not lose your right mind?
Poor me, if only I knew the whirlpool that motherhood would turn out to be for an inexperienced first-timer like me… Oh, how I miss my blissful ignorance! At one point, my little one was attached to my boob what seemed like forever and then – Boom! He is picking and eating spring onions directly from the garden. And don’t even get me started on the ritual he follows when eating a banana. I bet it takes less time for the banana to ripen than it takes my son to peel it.
Sooner or later, we all find a way to keep our babies and toddlers fed (whether it is singing silly songs while trying to fly the spoon into their mouth or becoming a master of food carving overnight). What most parents oversee, though, is that food and sleep have A LOT in common. In other words, your little one’s diet may be the reason for the countless sleepless nights all family members are enduring. Mind you, it is not only the quantity or the quality of the food. Timing matters as well!
If you have a toddler, preschooler, or bigger child with sleeping problems, the following tips are for you:
1. Foods your child shouldn’t eat before sleep
No, I am not suggesting you are serving your 2-year-old a double espresso after dinner. Did you know that caffeine is present in a whole bunch of foods other than coffee? Here’s a list of foods and drinks that are surprisingly rich in caffeine:
• Coffee (even decaf!)
• Soft drinks (even non-cola ones!)
• Black tea
• Green tea
• Chocolate (the darker the chocolate, the bigger amounts of caffeine in it)
• Ice cream and yogurt (caffeinated and chocolate varieties)
• Chocolate milk
• Hot cocoa
Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that increases your child’s mental alertness and can have a huge negative impact on your child’s sleep pattern. All of the above directly puts it on top of our list of products you shouldn’t give your toddler or child before sleep.
There are many reasons you should avoid the use of refined sugar in your (and your toddler’s) diet. Refined sugar (also processed sugar, table sugar) is known as simple sugar and it can negatively affect your child’s immune system, behavior, attention span, learning skills, blood pressure, dental health, weight, and, last but not least, quality of sleep. Here are some foods and drinks rich in refined sugar that your child should avoid (especially before bedtime):
• Sweets (candy, cookies, cake, doughnuts, muffins, ice cream, etc.)
• Flavored drinks (fruit punch, flavored yogurt and smoothies)
• Some sugary cereals
• Processed foods (ketchup, salad dressing, BBQ sauce, pasta sauces, canned fruit and vegetables, frozen meals)
• Fruit juice
• Vitamin, energy, and antioxidant water
Refined sugar is another food ingredient that increases alertness, stimulating your child’s brain and keeping him active and reluctant to go to sleep long after bedtime. Right after your little one has a sugary snack, his blood sugar levels increase but in a little while they drop significantly. In an attempt to re-stabilize its blood sugar levels, the body releases adrenaline (known as the stress hormone). And the last thing you need to deal with is trying to put to sleep a toddler with high levels of adrenaline in his body.
2. Foods that will help your child sleep better
Sleeping is a natural bodily function. As such, it heavily depends on biological processes and hormone levels. Luckily for you, there are foods that will help your child sleep better. They are neither too expensive nor too difficult to find (and prepare). Here’s a list of healthy foods that will better the quality of your child’s sleep:
Fasten your seat belts, here comes a technical explanation. Tryptophan is the amino acid that is used for the creation of serotonin. And serotonin is a magical neurotransmitter that (when activated) awakens feelings of happiness, satiety, and… sleepiness! In other words, if your child eats foods rich in tryptophan, they will help promote sleep. Here’s a list of them:
• Lean beef
The magical ingredient telling your kid’s brain it’s sleeping time is best accompanied by complex carbohydrates. That’s why a balanced dinner containing potatoes, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, oatmeal, whole wheat bread/pita, etc. plus any of the foods from the list above, will guarantee you a better sleeper.
Here are some good combinations to try as a start:
• Whole grain crackers with cheese
• Oatmeal with milk
• Plain yogurt with banana
• Whole wheat pasta with chicken breasts
• Scrambled eggs with cheese and a slice of whole wheat bread
• Salmon with steamed rice
Calcium and magnesium
Calcium and magnesium are minerals that have a calming effect on the nervous system and help children both fall and stay asleep.
Foods rich in calcium:
• Sesame seeds
• Leafy greens
Foods rich in magnesium:
• Green vegetables
3. Timing and food intolerances
Even if you feed your little one with only “the right foods” and avoid chocolate, sugar, and caffeine as if your life depends on it, you might still experience the same sleep problems with your child. Why? Because it is not only WHAT they eat, it is also WHEN they eat that matters. As a rule of thumb, dinner should be served at least 2 hours before bedtime. A small (healthy!) snack is allowed at least 30 minutes before your little one goes to sleep.
Sometimes, it is not the food your toddler eats that affects the quality of their sleep, but the reaction of their body to that food. If your little one is suffering from a food intolerance, you should not be surprised by the negative effect this intolerance has on the quality of their sleep. Here’s a list of the most common food intolerances:
• Dairy products
If you think your child has a food intolerance, eliminate all of the above from their diet for 2 weeks and monitor the changes that happen. If your child’s sleep improves, start adding the foods back to his diet one by one every 4 days until you find the culprit.