How Your Child’s Eating Habits Are Affecting Their Sleep
Your child’s nutrition and sleep habits are two huge contributing factors to their healthy development and growth. The two are inextricably linked–what they eat affects how well they sleep and their sleep quality affects their nutritional habits and preferences.
I am a dietician, not a sleep expert, but there are things nutritionally that we can do as parents to guide our children to healthy sleeping patterns.
Gut health is the phrase used when talking about the gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome consists of billions of different bacteria, a delicate balance of the good and the bad, that keeps us healthy, digests food, controls gut leakage, and is the number one protector of our immune system. There is not a single mechanism in our body unaffecting by the gut.
A healthy gut is particularly important for kids because a majority of the immune system lives there! The biggest issue that picky eating can lead to is poor gut health because of a lack of variety. If their gut health is suffering, you may notice difficulty in falling asleep, waking frequently, or waking up not feeling rested.
The number one thing you can do nutritionally to improve your child’s gut health–and by association, their sleep–is to make sure they’re getting enough variety. That variety introduces different bacteria to the gut, allowing it to reach perfect homeostasis.
Vitamins come from the food we eat and are an important component in the production of sleepy-time hormones like melatonin and serotonin. They also support the deployment of neurotransmitters that promote sleep.
Vitamin D helps regulate sleep/wake cycles by regulating stress hormones, supporting the immune system, and aiding in the production of melatonin. Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to get enough of this essential vitamin from food alone. Even with the recommended 15 minutes a day in the sun, you and your child likely need to supplement.
Iron is a crucial mineral that most children are deficient in, especially if they are picky. Low iron can cause extreme fatigue. Unfortunately, that fatigue will not lead to better sleep. It will actually put the body in a stressed state which will impede the production of sleep hormones. Red meat is the best source of iron, though supplementation may be needed.
These three vitamins are extremely important for heart health and getting a solid, restful sleep. Magnesium is the top deficiency in the world, especially in America. Consult with your physician, but you and your child likely need supplementation for these three essential vitamins.
Timing of Meals
Blood sugar regulation is crucial for restful sleep. When we eat food, our body turns it into glucose which is the energy source of our cells–especially our brain! It also directly affects our gut health and cortisol levels.
But it’s a fine line. We don’t want too much or too little blood sugar. That spike and crash cycle activates our sympathetic nervous system and prevents our body from creating the hormones vital to healthy sleep.
Aim for meals every 2-3 hours, focusing on well-balanced plates to keep blood sugar levels regulated.
Our culture has demonized fats in recent years, but it’s an essential nutrient for children. They need fat for their development because it’s very energy dense. It’s also a precursor for hormone production, especially melatonin.
Coconut oil, olive oil, and full-fat dairy are great sources of healthy fats that should be a part of every child’s diet! Plus, the omega-3 fatty acids decrease inflammation and help establish a circadian rhythm.
Sleepy hormones are crucial and we need to make sure we are supporting them. However, be careful with supplementation, as over time your body will think it no longer needs to produce it on its own.
You can help your child support melatonin production with B6, Tryptophan, regulating cortisol levels, and offering melatonin-rich foods like walnuts, oats, eggs, fish, cherries, grapes, tomatoes, and breastmilk.
How Sleep Affects Nutrition
While our nutrition can certainly affect our sleep, the quality of our sleep also impacts our nutrition. It can dictate what we eat, how we eat, and when we eat. When we are operating off less sleep, it makes us crave quick fast energy \in the form of carbs. But when we, and our children, succumb to those cravings, we fall into the spike-crash blood sugar cycle.
Getting good sleep to support our child’s nutrition is just as important as optimizing their nutrition to support quality sleep. Working on one will likely impact the other, leading to an overall well-rounded, healthy child.
It might feel overwhelming thinking about all the ways you should optimize your child’s nutrition, especially if they’re a picky eater! Focus on taking one small step at a time and adjusting course when needed. If you still don’t know where to start, I invite you to join my Table Talk Course. There, you can join a team of other parents in the same boat as you and together we will guide you to take back mealtimes and become your child’s at-home nutritional expert.