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Diet, Sleep, & Children: What’s the Connection? 

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last five years, you’ve probably heard the news: (good) sleep is healthy. 


Yes, we could spend hours and hours and hours enumerating the many ways in which sleep benefits our mental and physical health and wellbeing (and in fact there are a myriad of podcasts and books which do just that… I’ve stayed up too late many a time reading/listening to them 🙄). And any parent can confirm what scientific evidence bears out: that not getting enough sleep can impact our emotions, our cognitive functioning, and our overall physical health. 


I don’t even need the studies to know it’s true… 


But wait, there’s more: a lack of sleep can also exert effects on the sympathetic nervous system, impair the body’s response to glucose, and even impact hormone levels. And sleep deprivation is associated with an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease and inflammation, too. 


This may come as bad news for parents of young children — but the good news is that evidence suggests the negative effects of sleep deprivation can be reversed… all you have to do is start getting enough sleep (HAH). 


Since there’s no way around sleep poverty as a parent (a line from one of my favorite board books comes to mind: you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you’ve got to go through it…), let’s shift focus to our kids, shall we? 

Children, Sleep, and Health 


If sleep is essential for adults, it’s even more so for growing children. (There’s a reason babies spend so much time asleep…) Yes, sleep directly influences children’s mental and physical growth and development. Physically, sleep helps children’s bodies restore and helps their immune and endocrine systems function well. It’s also critical for learning, brain development, and metabolic activity. 


Children who don’t get enough sleep are at risk, too — they are more likely to lag behind in cognitive development, display behavioral and emotional problems, and be overweight/obese, among other effects. 


What’s “Normal”? 

The way and amount we sleep changes dramatically over the course of our lives — but especially so in the first five years. Here are the averages and ideals (not the same!) for the 0-5 age group: 

  • Newborn babies spend some 80% of their time sleeping — this is most of the day and most of the night; generally they wake up briefly to eat every 1-3 hours
  • Over the first year: babies usually sleep 10-12 hours overnight with two naps during the day, for a total of ~14-15 hours per day
  • Toddlers: usually spend about half of any given day sleeping… 
    • It’s recommended that 2-year-olds get 11-14 hours sleep per day (including overnight sleep and naps) and 3-5-year-olds get 10-13 hours sleep per day (again, including overnight sleep and naps). 
    • In reality, almost one third of toddlers do not hit these recommended amounts^^ — according to studies and surveys, 33% of children 1-2 years old and 35% of children 3-5 years old, respectively, aren’t getting the sleep they need. 

A point: Sleep — or rather, getting enough it — is a major struggle for almost every family with a young child. 


At the risk of repeating myself, most parents don’t need scientists to tell us how much sleep matters. We see the difference in our children’s behavior and focus and cognitive capacity when they have a rough night, or there’s a time change, or we get off schedule. We hear it, we recognize it, we know it. We literally feel it. 


And while it can be incredibly frustrating (understatement of the year…) that we have a decided lack of control over our children’s sleep, there are things we can do to help improve it. Indeed, much like with feeding and eating, toddlerhood is actually a window of opportunity where we parents can help our children establish healthy sleep habits and routines they can carry with them (hopefully, LOL) into adolescence and adulthood. 


Three of the top strategies for helping children learn to fall and stay asleep (well) are: 

  1. Establishing reliable routines (i.e., adhering to good sleep hygiene, having consistent wake/bedtimes, and following a predictable pre-sleep routine);

  2. Leading an active lifestyle; and 

  3. Eating a high-quality diet. 

The first two of these, even if they may be difficult to achieve, are relatively straightforward. Let’s take a closer look at the third piece, though: how does what a child eats influence their sleep? 

Children’s Diets and Sleep


We’re learning more every day about the ways in which food and drink affect sleep, and the evidence (thus far — more to come!) is super useful for parents with young children. Here are the top pieces of intel about how what (and when) you serve your child can influence how they sleep:

1. Having consistent meal times is associated with improved sleep. 


According to one study, children who follow inconsistent eating patterns (i.e., have snacks and meals at different and unpredictable times throughout the day) are twice as likely to sleep less overall overnight. This is a big difference! 


The reasoning behind this is twofold: 1) eating helps regulate (or throw off) our circadian rhythm; and 2) eating according to a regular schedule likely promotes other routines, such as bedtime routines. 


What this means for parents: you don’t need to necessarily hold an eating schedule to a tee, but following a roughly predictable and consistent meal and snack schedule may help your family to stick with a bedtime plan and help your child sleep longer at night.

2. Whole foods and a high-quality diet are associated with improved sleep. 


Individuals who consume more fruits and vegetables on a regular basis tend to sleep longer — this is true among adults, adolescents, and toddlers. As if you need another reason to load up on veggies and fruits, hah — but SLEEP. That's where Amara comes in. With our nutrient-dense, veggie forward blends, we leave baby full, longer, without the sugar crash. Check out our Introduction to Vegetables Pack or Plant-Based Protein Packto find the perfect combo for your little one. Here is a reason that benefits everyone! As scientists note, “a healthy snack in response to child hunger… may be an adaptive component of a bedtime routine.”


That said: 

  • Eating very close to bedtime is associated with sleep disturbance.

    Especially since so many of our young children need to get to bed on the early side, it can be tough to space dinner from bedtime — don’t stress too much about it, but keep in mind that eating immediately before bed can lead to sleep troubles.

    3. Excess liquids at bedtime may be associated with more frequent night wakings. 


    This is at once both profoundly simple and also kind of life-changing (if, like me, you hadn’t really thought of it before…). It makes so much sense: children who consume a lot of fluids close to bedtime tend to wake up more in the middle of the night because they need to use the bathroom. Limiting fluid intake in the evenings can make a big difference. 


    What about milk? 

    In our culture, a nightly glass of milk is often associated with improved sleep. Although milk is certainly not curative or necessary for a good night’s sleep, there’s actually something to this… 

    Cow’s milk naturally contains small amounts of melatonin (a hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle), and I was fascinated to learn that melatonin levels in cow’s milk can fluctuate greatly depending on the time of day. When cows are milked in darkness, their milk contains significantly higher levels of melatonin — it’s called “night time milk.” Who knew?

    Unless you live on a farm, you don’t likely have access to “night time milk,” but how cool is that?? Maybe you can use it at trivia night…


    4. Fast food and highly processed foods are associated with shorter sleep duration overnight. 

    Although the studies on this one have been conducted among teens, the same stands to reason for other age groups: soft drinks, sweets, and fast foods are linked with less sleep and worse sleep quality. 


    The Takeaway on Children, Diet, and Sleep: 


    When it comes to sleep, there is no magic bullet — but diet is one factor among many that may help children have better, longer, more restorative sleep. 


    The best way to eat for sleep health is to: 


    • Set and follow regular mealtimes and snack times;

    • Consume a healthy, high-quality diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and seafoods (and avoid processed and highly-processed foods);

    • Avoid eating too close to bedtime; and

    • Avoid excess liquids near bedtime. 

    When shopping for your baby's food and snacks, look for foods which have:

    -minimal processing

    -clean ingredient list

    -no added sugars

    Amara makes it easy. With all of the good stuff and none of the junk, choosing Amara takes the guesswork out of feeding your little one. 

     

    At the end of the day, these strategies won’t just help your child (and hopefully you!) to sleep better — they’ll also contribute to a healthy overall lifestyle that can buoy your family’s mental and physical health and wellbeing. So eat up and sleep up, and let us know how it goes :) 

     

     






    References:

     

    Bathory E & Tomopoulos S. Sleep Regulation, Physiology and Development, Sleep Duration and Patterns, and Sleep Hygiene in Infants, Toddlers, and Preschool-Age Children. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cppeds.2016.12.001

    Covington L et al.  Longitudinal Associations Among Diet Quality, Physical Activity and Sleep Onset Consistency With Body Mass Index z-Score Among Toddlers in Low-income Families. Ann. behav. med. (2021) 55:653–664

    Doherty R et al. Sleep and Nutrition Interactions: Implications for Athletes. Nutrients 2019, 11, 822

    Golem DL et al. An Integrative Review of Sleep for Nutrition Professionals. Adv Nutr 2014;5:742–759

    Hager EH et al. Nighttime Sleep Duration and Sleep Behaviors among Toddlers from Low-Income Families: Associations with Obesogenic Behaviors and Obesity and the Role of Parenting. Childhood Obesity 2016, 12(5)

    Hepsomali  P & Groeger JA. Examining the role of systemic chronic inflammation in diet and sleep relationship. Journal of Psychopharmacology 2022, Vol. 36(9) 1077–1086

    Jansen EC et al. Early Childhood Diet in Relation to Toddler Nighttime Sleep Duration Trajectories. Nutrients 2022, 14, 3059

    Min C et al.  The association between sleep duration, sleep quality, and food consumption in adolescents: A cross-sectional study using the Korea Youth Risk Behavior Web-based Survey. BMJ Open 2018;8

    Mindell JA & Williamson AA. Benefits of a bedtime routine in young children: Sleep, development, and beyond. Sleep Med Rev. 2018 August; 40: 93–108

    Ríos-Hernández A et al. The relationship between diet and sleep in 2-y-old children: Results from Growing Up in New Zealand. Nutrition 2022 Mar

    Vernia F et al. Sleep disorders related to nutrition and digestive diseases: a neglected clinical condition. Int. J. Med. Sci. 2021, Vol. 18 

    https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=infant-sleep-90-P02237

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