Let’s talk about something that goes hand in hand, but that often gets missed when parents are trying to diagnose their toddler’s sleep issues. Nutrition, or maybe LACK of nutrition. Specifically toddler nutrition and sleep. What your toddler eats daily can affect his sleep significantly, yet sleep consultants and parents often overlook it.
Toddler Nutrition and Sleep
Most parents know that nutrition is important but in our fast-paced, no-margin, 2 parents working lifestyle many times making time to cook REAL FOOD and incorporating eating together feels like a MASSIVE chore that we simply don’t have time for. Or maybe you just don’t know HOW to cook so that adds a whole other roadblock to the healthy eating thing. I get it! I’ve been there. I feel your pain….I couldn’t cook a thing when I got married and there was NO internet or YouTube videos to teach me. Yep, you have it WAY easier than I did for sure.
But even at the young age of 24, I figured out real quick that this was IN my job description and the more kids I had the more obvious it became that I needed to figure out this cooking thing. So I did. It took YEARS to get good at it and as my kids got older I realized that they needed to learn to cook too, PLUS I needed the help! So I got my kids in the kitchen and guess what…. kids are MUCH more likely to eat what they help prepare! AND they were learning a valuable skill set that one day would serve them well. Plus teaching kids to contribute within your family is something that has MASSIVE ROI when they get to be teenagers! Trust me!
All this to say that before I fully embraced the cooking thing, and started to learn about nutrition I was feeding my kids, well….junk food. Food that came from boxes and packages. Lots of refined carbohydrates, too much sugar, and definitely not enough good fats or protein. I knew nothing about food dyes, MSG, or any of the preservatives and fillers that were in just about everything I was feeding my kids. Until one day my 3-year-old was given a red slushie by his grandparents and literally went BERSERK!!!
For some unknown reason, I KNEW it was the red slushie that was causing his out-of-control behavior. This was the beginning of my deep dive into learning how food affects behavior AND sleep! I went on a decade ( plus) long journey, and am STILL learning about food and nutrition. I became PASSIONATE about eating well myself and feeding my kids nutritionally dense food.
I now take that education into all of my toddler consultations because guess what, what your kids eat matters. It matters for their sleep, their behavior, their brain, their learning, and the overall quality of their life now, AND into their adult life. So much of our lives revolve around food. The investment of time and money into learning what it takes to feed our families food that actually feeds their brains and bodies is SOOO WORTH IT!!
So now let’s talk about some sleep PROMOTING foods AND some food that you might want to think twice about.
Omega 3 fatty acids (good fats)
This is so good for our kids’ brains! It helps calm their central nervous system, and keeps them satiated as well as keeps their blood sugar levels stable. Foods that contain Omega 3’s are salmon, tuna, halibut, avocados, nuts (specifically walnuts) seeds, and cold-pressed oils like flax oil or flax seeds. Flax seeds can be ground up and put in just about anything!
No, chicken nuggets don’t count! Protein stabilizes blood sugar levels and keeps our kids full for longer. It’s also essential for muscle growth. Foods that contain protein are beef, chicken, turkey, pastured eggs ( also a good fat) along with vegan sources such as beans, lentils, and quinoa.
Zinc is often an overlooked nutrient. Kiddos that are deficient in Zinc are often difficult to settle, so adding in zinc rich foods can be helpful. Sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, tahini, pumpkin seeds. Many types of meat are also high in zinc.
Magnesium-rich foods are helpful in de-stressing our bodies and our minds. Foods such as leafy green vegetables, nuts, and seeds are high in magnesium. I know you’re saying “ my kid will NOT eat leafy greens, Mamie!”. I know, I know! But here’s a pro tip- Make them a breakfast or lunch smoothie with nut milk or water for the base, frozen berries, a banana and throw in some leafy greens. (spinach is my favorite) They won’t even know it’s in there! I promise! Add in some vanilla vegan protein powder or full-fat yogurt, an avocado, or some coconut oil or flax oil and you’re good to go!! You’ve got a SUPER healthy, nutrient-dense meal that’s quick and EASY to make, with almost NO CLEANUP! That’s a WIN!
Also, something to note, many people have magnesium deficiencies. This can be seen in restlessness in the legs or headaches. Throwing 2-3 cups of Epsom salts in the nighttime bath can do wonders to help calm kiddos before bed. It also can increase their magnesium levels through the skin. Using a magnesium lotion after the bath can also be really helpful as well!
Now let’s talk about some of the foods you want to try and minimize.
- Refined carbohydrates, things like white bread, white pasta, most cereals, puffs, crackers made with white flour ( yes this means goldfish!) cookies, cakes, white bagels, and the list goes on.
- Foods with hidden sugars- cereals, yogurt (buy unsweetened and sweeten with honey or real maple syrup) dried fruit, power bars, granola, juice, ketchup, BBQ sauce, and lots of “kids foods”. Learn to read labels. If it has a bunch of ingredients that you don’t recognize as food then you should probably avoid it as a routine food for your toddler. Keep in mind that the daily recommended amount of sugar is 25g max. That is for 2 years and older. As you read labels keep that in mind. Less is better!
Here’s the truth: High-quality whole food makes for a calmer child in general, whose sleep isn’t going to be disturbed by food dyes, sugars, and preservatives. Does this mean that you’re never going to feed your kids Kraft macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets again??! Of course not! It just means that when you know better you do better! Just start taking one step in the right direction and choose one new healthy eating habit each week that you can start incorporating. You’ll be amazed at how quickly these habits start to take root.
If you want to learn more about how to start incorporating cooking together as a family into your life or just learn how to cook yourself check out one of my favorite sites. Kitchen Stewardship. Katie has dedicated her life to helping families make healthy eating and cooking a lifestyle. She is AMAZING at what she does. You will be blessed by all of her fantastic resources!
If you suspect that food might be the culprit of your toddler’s sleep troubles send me an email or schedule a call to troubleshoot. I’m really good at helping you quickly find the food culprits that may be causing the sleep issue. To help, I can give you ideas for healthy replacement foods to try. I also have LOTS of other really great resources for feeding toddlers healthy food.