Food and sleep

What food helps my child sleep?Did you know that there are good and bad foods that can help or hinder sleep? Our Channel Mum health visitor Maggie Fisher has put together this in-depth guide all about what to eat and avoid for a good nights sleep. The quick version is above but if you want to know more details, take a look below! Also why not check out the Channel Mum sleep guide and you can hear about all Maggie’s top tips on sleep.

What we eat has an enormous impact on our health, wellbeing, weight, concentration, brain development and mood. It can also have an impact on how we sleep. The foods we eat and the things we drink can really make the difference between a good or poor night’s sleep! This is even more so for children as they are so small and therefore more susceptible to the effects of food especially harmful additives or chemicals. If your child is taking solids and is not settling or sleeping well then it is a good idea to take stock of what they are eating and drinking throughout the day but especially during that very last meal before bedtime.

Baby ClinicDon’t forget you can chat to our experts in the Channel Mum Support Group if you are worried at any time.

What about additives and sleep?

What children eat can have a major impact on concentration, sleep, mood and brain development and sweeteners added to some soft drinks and sweet food can reduce tryptophan levels. Tryptophan is essential in producing serotonin, which stabilises mood. Low levels of tryptophan are associated with hyperactivity and aggressive behaviour. Some additives reduce dopamine and nor-adrenalin in the brain resulting in hyperactive behaviour in some children.

Can a lack of sleep cause obesity?

Childhood sleep habits may have a long-term effect on weight, well into adulthood. Dozens of studies have explored the link between sleep duration and obesity in children. Most have found a convincing association between too little sleep and increased weight. A British study, that followed more than 8,000 children from birth found that those who slept fewer than 10 and a half hours a night at age 3 had a 45 percent higher risk of becoming obese by age 7, compared to children who slept more than 12 hours a night.

What foods will help my child get to sleep?

Studies show that food rich in tryptophan helps induce sleep in children.  Foods rich in tryptophan are turkey, pasta, oily fish such as tuna, salmon or mackerel, green leafy vegetables, beans, seeds, banana and bread which help aid sleep and alleviate hunger. Another good food to consider is oatmeal as it triggers a rise in blood sugar, which in turn triggers insulin production and the release of sleep-inducing brain chemicals.

Our health visitor Maggie’s top tip: Give porridge if you want your baby to have a nap after breakfast.

Toast is the perfect snack before bed. Along with insulin comes a release of tryptophan and serotonin, two brain chemicals that promote relaxation and combat anxiety. Calcium has a calming effect and can help your child get to sleep quicker. Good sources other than milk include cheese and yoghurt; white bread; dried fruits, leafy green vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, ready to eat figs, pulses and beans, sardines, fish with bones in and tinned fish, baked beans, dried apricots, ice cream and milk puddings.  If there is a history of peanut allergy in the immediate family seek medical advice before offering to your child

Maggie’s top tip: Calcium has a calming effect, so warm milk makes the perfect bedtime drink.

To really boost the effect of tryptophan, you could serve some carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, or rice, alongside it. Carb-rich foods cause a spike in blood sugar levels, triggering the body’s production of insulin to bring them back down. This is why you often feel a burst of energy in the first few minutes after eating carbs, then a “crash” of tiredness.

Magnesium is known to be a muscle relaxant; nuts* and seeds, shredded wheat, cocoa powder and soya are all excellent sources. (* Whole nuts should not be given to children under five due to the risk of choking.) Avoid giving your child peanuts and foods containing peanuts before the age of 6 months, if there is a history of peanut allergy in the immediate family seek medical advice before offering to your child).

Adding fish for a better sleep

Research has shown that DHA a fatty acid found in the meat of cold-water fish, including mackerel, herring, tuna, halibut, salmon and cod liver is one of the omega 3 fatty acids essential for normal brain development, thinking and concentration in infants; it also increases serotonin levels which have a calming and stabilising effect.  A recent UK study found that children consuming omega-3 DHA sleep better and longer than those that didn’t.

Do bananas really help babies sleep?

Bananas are really useful as they contain potassium and magnesium that are natural muscle relaxants.

Maggie’s top tip: Serving bananas sliced into a bowl of milk adds calcium which is calming and provides one of their 5 a day.

What foods will stimulate my child?

Diet is even more important in babies and small children as their bodies and brains are still developing, as they are so small they are much more vulnerable to some of the harmful chemical effects from food. It is well known that food additives in processed foods such as sweets, biscuits and soft drinks can affect a child’s mood which may trigger unwanted behaviour.

Foods high in sugar

Sugar and sweets on an empty stomach play havoc with a child’s sugar levels. This gives the child an energy boost and then after 30 minutes they experience a dramatic drop in their blood sugar levels that can lead to anxiety, aggression and hyperactive behaviour. High sugar foods and drinks contain lots of calories but little in the way of nutrition and the sugar is harmful to their teeth too of course. If they do have sweet foods or drinks teeth should be cleaned after. Remember to clean teeth after drinking milk or other drinks before bed to protect teeth. A proper meal will help to increase the levels of the mood stabilising serotonin. Snacks such as banana, or toast are preferable as they will boost levels of serotonin and prevent this dramatic drop in blood sugar levels from sweet snacks.

Protein

Protein foods activate dopamine, a brain stimulant. It is best not to give a protein rich meal two hours before bed, if you can, give the main meal at lunchtime and a lighter meal at tea time. Include some protein in the last meal of the day that is rich is tryptophan, such as turkey, pasta, oily fish such as tuna, salmon or mackerel, green leafy vegetables, beans, seeds, banana and bread to help aid sleep and alleviate hunger. Be sure to include some carbohydrates to boost the effects of the tryptophan.

Caffeine

Chocolate and drinks containing chocolate contains the stimulant drug caffeine and is also best avoided. Check what your child is drinking to ensure it is caffeine free. Some sweeteners in soft drinks and sweet foods can lower tryptophan levels and increase hyperactive and aggressive behavior.

Hot spicy food

Did you know that tomato sauce, chilli, pizza, and spicy foods can all disrupt sleep? Acidic and spicy foods can cause reflux, heartburn, and other symptoms that interrupt sleep. Studies have found that eating spicy food prior to bedtime not only reduces the overall amount of sleep a person gets, but also raise the core body temperature, which has been linked to poor sleep quality.

Fatty foods and Preserved and smoked meats.

Beyond raising cholesterol and increasing obesity risk, fatty foods that are high in protein, like steak, digest slowly and may disrupt our Circadian rhythm if eaten close to bedtime. Ham, bacon, sausages, and smoked meats contain high levels of the amino acid tyramine, which triggers the brain to release norepinephrine, a brain stimulant that makes us feel alert and buzzing. These foods are also high in fat and salt content.

Very high fibre foods

Some high roughage which is good for you like broccoli and cauliflower contain tryptophan, this helps the body produce serotonin and regulates sleep. However, eaten too close to bedtime, vegetables with high amounts of slow-to-digest fibre can keep your body working well into the night disturbing sleep so it’s best to eat a main meal at lunchtime if you can!

Health Visitor approved advice

This guide has been checked and approved by our in-house Health Visitor, Maggie Fisher in September 2018.

Other factsheets in this series

Safe sleeping for babies

Your baby’s average sleep needs

Sleep and awake states of your baby

What are your baby’s signs of tiredness?

Your baby’s sleep cycles

Comforting and soothing your baby to sleep

Sleep aids that might help settle your baby

Swaddling your baby

Bedtime routines

Using the ‘Gradual Retreat’ sleep training method

Using the ‘Controlled Checking’ sleep training method

Using the ‘Kissing Game’ sleep training method

Using the ‘Pick Up, Put Down’ sleep training method

Using the ‘Wake to Sleep’ sleep training method

You might be interested in

The Channel Mum sleep guide

How to sooth a crying baby

Controlled Crying

Co-Sleeping

Colic