Children and sleep can be a challenge for many parents, which may feel like it will never end. Just when you think you’ve got something sorted, something else pops up to disrupt that precious time you both very much need! Whilst it is normal for babies and toddlers to have inconsistent sleep routines as they develop, chronic sleep deprivation has been associated with physical, emotional and behavioural problems. So naturally, anything we can do to support restorative sleep for our little ones (and our own sanity) is worth giving a try.
A lot of factors come into play with sleep difficulties; however, nutrition is an affordable and accessible strategy we can use as part of a holistic approach to help support the sleep process. From the appropriate age, we are all feeding our children every day anyway, so just a few tweaks to your ingredients and how you are preparing them can make a difference when it comes to serving the best food for sleep.
Research is limited in understanding the complex relationship between nutrition and sleep, but we do know that there are certain macro and micronutrients that can support optimal sleep.
The best nutrition and foods for sleep
Protein is an essential macronutrient that is an important building block when it comes to physical development but also helps to keep our kids feeling full. Including a source of protein (meat, chicken, fish, eggs, legumes, soy, nuts, seeds, dairy etc.) at each of their meals will support growth and development but also keep them feeling full to hopefully reduce waking or sleep disturbances caused by hunger. However, keep in mind that when introducing solids, our little one’s digestive symptoms need some to adjust. Rushing to introduce a lot of food, including protein, too early might cause difficulties with digestion, which can affect sleep too.
Healthy fats are so important for our kids' brain development, vision and nervous system, plus they also support feeling fuller for longer. Some research has also found that omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, are essential for sleep regulation and that high levels in pregnancy may lead to improved sleep patterns in infants. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include oily fish (salmon, sardines, anchovies), walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds.
Magnesium is needed for energy production, bone development, mood regulation and muscle relaxation. In addition, it supports a calming and relaxing effect on the body and promotes sleep, so it is no surprise that low levels of magnesium have been linked to sleep difficulties. Excellent food sources of magnesium to offer to children are green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, legumes, seeds, dates, bananas and figs.
Iron and Zinc.
Whilst we need more robust studies, there is some evidence to link iron and zinc with sleep quality and quantity, with both micronutrients being essential for optimal growth and development in infants and children, too (did you know the iron needs of a baby between 7 and 12 months is more than an adult male?). The best sources of these foods are red meat (particularly slow-cooked), liver, chicken, oysters, legumes, tofu, nuts, pumpkin seeds, dark leafy green vegetables and whole grains.
No doubt you have heard of melatonin as our ‘sleep hormone’ because it is involved in our sleep and wake cycle. There are ways we can support its production naturally with foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan. These include chicken, turkey, eggs, salmon, tofu, milk, nuts and seeds.
Overall, when it comes to nutrition and sleep, a balanced intake of wholefoods is the best approach. The best food for sleep includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, dairy, fish, chicken, meat and soy, which will not only cover the bases for the nutrients listed above, but they will ensure adequate fibre, protein and healthy fats to keep kids' tummies feeling fuller for longer and support optimal sleep.
About the Author
Steph Geddes is a Registered Nutritionist specialising in culinary nutrition with a passion for inspiring others to enjoy eating seasonal nutritious food. Steph works as a creative recipe developer, corporate public speaker, cooking class teacher and ambassador. Her recipes and nutrition advice are featured in everything from worldwide cafes, to blogs, mainstream media and celebrity cookbooks. Steph also takes on the important role as Mum to her 18-month-old son Beau and is expecting her second child in the coming months.