Toddler years are very busy for both children and their parents. This period of continuous exploration and intense movement also requires proper downtime and rest. Ample sleep is critical as during this period the body does much of its building and repair work. Toddlers should be averaging somewhere between 12-14 hours of sleep within a 24-hour period. Yet, today many toddlers struggle with sleep issues, either not being able to fall asleep quickly or not remaining in a deep sleep state for long enough. Although diet is not the only cause for sleep issues, it can certainly play a large role in determining the quality of slumber a child gets.
To prepare a toddler for sleep, it is important to calm the brain by stimulating the proper secretions of specific neurotransmitters. In particular, the neurotransmitter serotonin should be activated as serotonin brings on the feelings of satiety, happiness, and sleepiness. Therefore it is serotonin that we want to increase as we approach bedtime. Since serotonin is created from the amino acid tryptophan, it is important to consume tryptophan rich foods. Good food sources of tryptophan are turkey, chicken, milk, eggs, nuts, bananas, beans, fish, and cheese.
However, it is important to choose the right combination of foods as tryptophan has to compete with other amino acids to gain access to the brain. If foods high in other amino acids such as tyrosine or methionine are consumed (as in meat for example), less tryptophan may make its way into the brain. In order to remedy this problem, it is important to also consume foods that are high in carbohydrates as they will also aid in boosting the creation of serotonin and increasing tryptophan absorption. By eating carbohydrates, the body will secrete insulin and the release of this hormone will help to minimize the absorption of the other amino acids that compete with tryptophan. Fortunately, tryptophan is not affected by insulin. Therefore, offering a toddler an evening snack such as whole grain crackers and cheese, oatmeal with milk, or some plain yogurt with banana will assist in preparing their body for rest.
Calcium and Magnesium
Foods that are rich in calcium and magnesium are also helpful for improving sleep. These minerals help calm the nervous system and can help toddlers fall and stay asleep. Calcium can be found in dairy, almonds, sesame seeds, leafy greens, oranges, and sardines whereas magnesium can be found in seeds, nuts, and green vegetables. Try and include these foods in their daily diet. The age old remedy of offering warm milk to children before bed tends to be effective as it contains both calcium and tryptophan.
Foods to Avoid
Just as certain foods will help to prepare toddlers for sleep there are others that will interfere with sleep. Some of the more obvious ones are those that contain caffeine such as pop and chocolate. Toddlers should avoid these foods completely if they are having sleep issues.
High sugar foods are also problematic. It is wise to avoid sugary snacks in the evening as these will also have a negative affect on sleep since they can cause a fluctuation of blood sugar levels. Immediately after eating a sugary snack, blood sugar levels with increase. A short while later they will fall significantly. In order to try and re-stabilize blood sugar levels, the body will later force the adrenal glands to release adrenaline – a stress hormone – which can cause toddlers to awaken once they have already fallen asleep.
On a final note, it is also wise to determine if a toddler is suffering with a food intolerance, which can also interfere with restful sleep. The most common intolerances are dairy, wheat, soy, corn, eggs, chocolate and nuts. If you suspect an intolerance, consider doing an elimination diet whereby these foods are all removed from the diet for 10-14 days to see if any improvements are noted. To determine which food is the culprit, each can be added back into the diet, one by one, every four days and any sleep disturbances should be noted.