Together Trust charity has provided their expert knowledge on how food and drink plays an important part in your and your child’s sleep.
Some foods and drinks can affect the quality and duration of your child’s sleep. Even the timing of these can play a part. In this blog, we examine how what your child eats and drinks during the day and the night, can play a part in their sleep quality and quantity.
Keeping it Regular
Circadian rhythms (or body clocks) and meal timing have an effect on your child’s energy balance and body weight. How your child’s body uses energy and the hormones that keep little appetites regular, both follow circadian rhythms. In a nutshell, sleep can impact appetite and the timing and type of foods eaten can disrupt sleep.
While the foods your child eats throughout the day may have some impact on their sleep, the food consumed in the evening will have the most impact on quality sleep. Every child is different and the way their body metabolises and responds to certain food and drinks will vary, which is why you may find you have one child who responds differently to their siblings.
What can shoo away sleep?
- Caffeine – it’s unlikely your child will be drinking tea and coffee throughout the day but did you know that hot chocolate and chocolate products also contain high levels of caffeine? Caffeine is also found in larger quantities in things like energy drinks, such as Prime, fizzy drinks, some chewing gum, and some medications. The worst thing about caffeine is that it will stay in your child’s system for HOURS so most sleep experts recommend refraining from consuming caffeinated products from the early afternoon onwards. Most of us know the effects caffeine has as a quick pick-me-up but how does it actually affect sleep? As we use energy throughout the day, we release something called adenosine. Adenosine builds up in our brain, reaching a peak just before bedtime. It’s this build up of adenosine that creates that feeling of tiredness at the end of the day, often called ‘sleep pressure’ when we just can’t fight sleep any more. Caffeine is your brain’s worst nightmare (excuse the pun!) because it latches onto the adenosine receptors in the brain, which blocks the adenosine, stopping your child from building up enough sleep pressure to want to fall asleep at the time you would expect them to.
- Sugary foods and drinks – as a parent, you’ve no doubt witnessed the effect that sugar can have on young children. One too many M&Ms and they are literally bouncing off the walls so it goes without saying that sugar can make your child feel very alert and less sleepy. Sugar is a natural stimulant that gives your child energy and prepares them for activity, and that is definitely not what we’re trying to do at night!
- Fatty foods – studies have shown that fatty foods can disrupt sleep by affecting circadian rhythms and leading to more fragmented sleep. Fatty foods can also cause a general feeling of discomfort which may make falling asleep more difficult for your child.
- Big meals too close to bedtime – we’ve all had that feeling of coming in from a meal out at night and struggling to go to sleep because we’ve eaten too late. It’s exactly the same for your child. Since their bedtime will be much earlier than yours, eating a large meal before bed can really play havoc with their sleep because their body is not designed to digest food while it is sleeping.
- Spicy foods – before we sleep, our body temperature naturally drops slightly and this promotes the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Spicy foods, as well as causing heartburn in some people, also raise body temperature and it is thought that this interferes with the production of melatonin.
- Bedtime drinks – We generally have nothing but praise for good old water, but there’s no denying that too much liquid, in any form, right before bed is likely to lead to night wakings for your child when they need the toilet. It’s a delicate balance between staying hydrated and cutting off your child’s fluid intake, but most sleep experts recommend limiting fluid intake in the two hours leading up to bedtime. If your child is diabetic or has any other medical condition, please seek advice from a medical professional about limiting fluid intake at night.
What foods and drinks can support sleep?
Both diet and sleep are complex, which means there’s no single food or drink that is guaranteed to help with sleep. However, there are some foods and drinks that may make it easier to get a good night’s sleep.
Tuck in with tryptophan!
Certain foods contain an essential amino acid called tryptophan, which helps the body produce melatonin. Melatonin is a natural hormone that promotes sleep. Because the body is unable to manufacture tryptophan on its own, it must be obtained from our diet. For tryptophan to be effective, it has to cross the blood-brain barrier (the brain’s security system). To do this it has to compete with other amino acids. Research suggests that combining tryptophan-rich foods with complex carbohydrates gives tryptophan an advantage. More research is needed in this area to try to determine just how effective tryptophan-rich foods could be on sleep.
Tryptophan is present in small amounts in most food containing protein and in higher amounts in yoghurt, milk, oats, bananas, poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds. Tryptophan is also contained in carbohydrate foods and we recommend you stick to complex carbs to lower the sugar content, e.g. brown bread, wholegrain cereals or wholegrain crackers.
Tart cherries and tart cherry juice
Sometimes called sour cherries, and not to be confused with sweet cherries, these include varieties like Richmond, Montmorency, and English Morello. They may be sold whole or as a tart cherry juice.
Several studies have found sleep benefits for people who drink tart cherry juice. These benefits may come from the fact that tart cherries have been found to have above-average concentrations of melatonin.
Warm milk or malted milk drinks
Malted milk powder contains wheat flour, malted wheat, and malted barley along with an assortment of vitamins which is combined with milk. Small studies have found that malted milk before bed reduced sleep interruptions.. The explanation for these benefits is uncertain but may have to do with the B and D vitamins in malted milk as well as the grains used.
Milk itself contains melatonin. When cows are milked at night, their milk has more melatonin, and this milk may be useful in providing a natural source of the sleep-producing hormone. Studies have also shown that for breast-fed babies, their mother’s milk also contains different levels of melatonin throughout the day, with melatonin peaking in breast milk late at night.
To ensure your child gets a good night’s sleep, try and give them their main meal earlier in the evening (at least two hours before their bedtime) to give their body time to digest it. Giving your child a light supper around an hour before bed can sustain them through the night so they don’t wake hungry. Suppers of tryptophan-rich foods can also support a better night’s sleep.
Here are a few of our sleepy supper suggestions:
- Oatcakes or rice cakes spread with any nut butter or cheese
- Cheese and crackers
- A piece of toast (wholemeal or seeded bread)
- A bowl of wholegrain cereal or porridge made with milk, oat milk or almond milk
- Banana or banana smoothie
- Turkey/chicken sandwich on wholemeal or seeded bread
- Warm milk or malted milk drink
- A small glass of tart cherry juice
Dietary choices affect more than just alertness and sleepiness. They can play a major role in things like weight, cardiovascular health, and blood sugar levels amongst other things. For that reason, it’s best to consult with a doctor or dietician before making significant changes to your child’s daily diet.
Sleep difficulties can often be due to lots of factors all working together but if you can get some ‘sleepy foods’ into your child’s diet and stop them reaching for the hot chocolate and biscuits at bedtime, you may see an impact on how well they settle to sleep and more importantly for you, stay asleep!