What your child eats before lights out and when she has a snack can sometimes affect how well she sleeps. This is important: The National Sleep Foundation says school-age kids need between 9 and 11 hours of quality sleep each night, preschoolers should log 10 to 13 hours, and toddlers thrive best when they get between 11 and 14 hours of shut-eye. Too little sleep can have an impact on a child’s physical and mental development, her mood, her behavior, and how well she’s able to learn in school.
While what a kid eats before hitting the hay isn’t the only factor that can affect the quality of her sleep, it can make a difference, says Stephanie Jackson, MD, a pediatric neurologist who specializes in sleep medicine at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. Here are Dr. Jackson’s tips for smart bedtime snacking.
Make sure your child doesn’t have an empty stomach. “This actually is more important than what a child eats,” says Dr. Jackson. “A kid who goes to bed hungry is going to have a tough time getting to sleep. If you’re serving adequate portions at meals and your child consistently says she’s hungry at bedtime, a small snack is reasonable.” The trick here is to know your child, Dr. Jackson adds. Some children go through a phase of feigning hunger as a way to put off bedtime. “We call this ‘behavioral insomnia of childhood,’” she explains. A child who keeps asking for one thing after another at bedtime may not be hungry at all — just trying to stay up as long as possible.
Pile on the protein or fill up with fiber. “I tell parents to offer a snack high in protein or fiber, says Dr. Jackson. “Foods that are primarily simple carbs and sugar, such as pop tarts, will make blood sugar rise and then fall quickly, leaving a child hungry again within an hour or two.” She suggests offering snacks like nuts, peanut butter, Greek yogurt, hummus, eggs, beans, tofu, berries, and whole grains. Cereal is okay as long as it’s not heavily sweetened.
Cut out caffeine. And be on the lookout for hidden sources of caffeine, such as chocolate or tea. If a child has any sort of caffeine during the day, keep in mind it has a long half-life. “Don’t give your child caffeine within six hours of bedtime,” advises Dr. Jackson.
Got milk? Give it a try. “Milk contains melatonin, a chemical the body’s pineal gland squirts out when the sun goes down to help regulate the sleep/wake cycle,” says Dr. Jackson. Warm milk can be soothing and may help a child relax. One caveat: “Don’t put a baby to sleep with bottle; you run the risk of causing tooth decay. If a child starts to nod off with a bottle in her mouth, remove it once she’s asleep,” advises Dr. Jackson.