How Feeding and Nutrition Affects Sleep

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

When your baby is first born there is a lot of emphasis around feeding. After all, for the first few weeks your world revolves around feeding, sleeping and changing nappies. But, how much does nutrition affect your baby’s sleep as they get older?

0 - 4 Months

Newborns feed a lot in the early days to promote and establish mum’s milk supply. Babies tummies start off very small. They need to feed frequently as their little tummies empty very quickly. As they grow, so do their stomachs which allows them to be able to start stretching out their feeds.

In the early months, feeding plays a big role in your baby’s sleep. A hungry baby won’t sleep well. Often sleeping issues are related to supply or feeding issues. So, if your newborn is having trouble sleeping and you are concerned about their feeding, reach out for help from your Paediatrician or an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC).

Timing of feeds, whether it be breastfeeding or bottle feeding, can also affect sleep. If your baby suffers from reflux, then spacing out feeds or keeping feeds about an hour before sleep can be beneficial. This allows their tummies the chance to empty before laying down, therefore reducing some of the discomfort caused by the reflux. Keeping feeds away from sleep times can also help avoid creating a feed to sleep association, although this only really become an issue closer to 4 months of age, so don't stress if your newborn loves to be fed to sleep.

4 – 9 Months

At around 4 months your little one’s sleep goes through some big changes. Their sleep cycles mature and sleep associations can start to become problematic.

See here for more information on the 4 month sleep regression.

If your little one is used to being fed to sleep and you start to notice that they are now having trouble linking their sleep cycles in the day or waking every couple of hours overnight looking to be fed, it might be time to start changing your feeding routine slightly to bring feeds away from sleep time. Around this age, if your baby is fed to sleep, when they wake, they will look for the same conditions they fell to sleep with initially. This can be feeding, rocking, bouncing etc.

Four to six months is also the age at which most babies will be introduced to solids. The WHO recommend waiting until closer to 6 months, however, in some circumstances you may be advised by a Paediatrician or Paediatric Nutritionist to start earlier. In any case, when you start solids, your baby’s digestive system will still be quite immature and will only be used to digesting milk. Introducing solids is a big change for their bodies and the process of learning how to digest food can be strange and uncomfortable.

When first introducing solid food, it’s best to just start with a very small amount and keep it simple. Some brown rice baby cereal mixed with breastmilk or formula or some simple vegetable purees. The best time of day to offer solids is generally an hour before their midday nap. This allows them the chance to start the digestion process, so their little tummies aren’t working away while they are trying to sleep. Keeping new foods to earlier in the day also allows you the chance to spot any reactions if they do occur.

From 6 months old your baby can start eating small amounts of meat protein. Again, keep this just at lunchtime to allow the body time to digest.

Up to about 8 months old, while your little one is becoming more establish on solids, it’s best to offer breastmilk or formula before each meal as this is still where they will be receiving most of their nutritional needs. From there you can split the milk feed to have half before their meal then the remainder of the milk feed after.

10 months +

From 10 months old, most babies will be on 3 solids meals a day and maybe some snacks as well. Having a small amount of protein with every meal and low GI carbs throughout the day will help to stabilise your little one’s blood sugar levels which can prevent a release of adrenalin overnight which can cause your baby to wake.

Once your toddler is well established on solids and receiving most of their nutritional needs from foods it’s important to make sure they are not having too much milk, especially cow’s milk, as it lacks a lot of the essential nutrients needed to support growth and well-being. If your toddler is filling up on milk during the day or overnight, they will not be hungry enough to want to eat a variety of foods to be able to receive enough healthy nutrients.

Foods rich in iron, magnesium and tryptophan all promote better sleep. Iron helps carry oxygen around the body while magnesium helps muscles relax and promotes more restorative sleep by maintaining healthy levels of sleep-inducing neurotransmitters. If you are having trouble including magnesium in your toddler’s diet, adding some Epsom salts to their evening bath can help.

Tryptophan increases serotonin levels which is then turned into melatonin (sleepy hormone). Foods rich in tryptophan include salmon, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, spinach etc.

You may find that if your toddler is a fussy eater, then they may also have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. By following some of the tips above and being creative with meal plans to encourage a well-balanced diet, their sleep is also likely to improve.

For help with finding a feed and sleep routine that helps promote better sleep, purchase and download this Feed and Sleep Routine Guide which covers age appropriate routines for newborns all the way though to toddlers 3 years old.

One on one consultations and downloadable sleep guides are all available online x

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