Nutrition and Other Foundations to Help Kids Get the Sleep They Need
If you’re the parent of a good sleeper, consider yourself very lucky indeed. Children, just like adults, can sometimes have trouble falling asleep. But there are lots of things you can do to help reduce the struggle. Experts say that early bedtime and consistent routine is the foundation for healthier, happier children. Consistent dinner time, bath and teeth time, and story time are all part of healthy sleep hygiene. But did you know that allowing your children to use computers or watch TV up to two hours before bed stimulates their brain in a way they can’t shut off? Instead, opt for story or bedtime music they can listen to while playing quietly or looking at books. Fifteen minutes of quiet restful music, like gentle flute or piano music before lights out can be relaxing and pleasant. At bedtime, a flowing water sound at a very low volume can be calming and restful, and help your child connect with the natural rhythms of life, like sleep. Light blocking shades and curtains on the windows are also helpful for falling asleep and promoting sound, restful sleep. But what if you are trying all this and it just isn’t working? You might be missing some basic nutrition foundations that could help.
Daily fish oil, vitamin D and probiotics help promote healthy mood, focus, learning and sleep for children. They help support proper neurotransmitter growth and function as well as hormonal support; and sleep is all about hormones!
You might hear about doctors telling parents to give melatonin to their children. The use of melatonin as a sleep aid came about when research identified that ELDERLY people may have sleep issues related to the decline of melatonin as we age, and therefore it may be an appropriate intervention for older adults. But children are not melatonin deficient. Melatonin is a hormone…and instead of giving exogenous hormones, I prefer the approach of supporting our kids’ natural, healthy and normal endogenous hormone production.
Many foods, but especially high protein foods like fish, poultry, meats, tofu, legumes, nuts and seeds contain significant amounts of the amino acid tryptophan which is required to make serotonin, the neurotransmitter that ultimately creates melatonin. Simply put, Tryptophan = Serotonin = Melatonin = Sleep. However, for tryptophan to have a sedative effect, it needs to enter the brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier, and since tryptophan uses the same transport system as other amino acids, it has to compete against them to enter the brain. Tryptophan from protein eaten throughout the day will be in reserve until sufficient carbohydrates make tryptophan more available to the brain, which is why carbohydrate-heavy meals make you drowsy. Kids don’t have to eat high tryptophan foods at dinner or before bedtime (although it can’t hurt!) but they need to get enough protein during the day to have tryptophan in reserve. You might be interested to know that 1 cup of cooked spinach, peas or potatoes contains almost the same amount of tryptophan as 1 cup of milk, and peas and potatoes can help offer the carbohydrates needed to unlock it’s sedating potential.
It’s also good to know that calcium is a critical element for the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin and melatonin. Hummus, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and cheese are all good sources of tryptophan and calcium, and make great after school snack foods paired with some cut up apples, carrots and celery.
Giving kids protein rich meals earlier in the day, at breakfast and lunch, and opting for a carbohydrate rich meal at suppertime, might help them fall asleep earlier. Carbohydrate rich oatmeal cooked with dairy or almond milk that is rich in both calcium and tryptophan, some walnuts, and half a banana, might send your little one off to dreamland before they hit the pillow!
We still don’t know everything there is to know about optimizing serotonin and melatonin production through food, but when and what we eat does have an effect on the timing and quality of our sleep. Herbal teas like passionflower, chamomile, lemon balm, holy basil and catnip are time tested favorites for children which are very safe and can be effective for helping kids relax and feel sleepy. There are a number of good herbal tea blends specifically formulated for relaxing and sedating properties, and can be brewed and served hot or cold. Find one that your child likes, and make a nightly ritual of sharing a cup of “sleepy” tea before bed or during story time.
Remember, if your kids are having trouble getting to sleep, try giving them lots of good carbs at supper, make sure they’re getting enough protein, calcium and magnesium during the day and follow a consistent and early bedtime routine. In addition, sharing a lovely cup of Passionflower tea with a dab of honey might work wonders.
Lisa Murray, RDN, LD