Is nutrition influencing your baby’s sleep?

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Baby’s sleep problems are among the biggest challenges that parents face. A common solution offered to mothers are to give baby more milk or food, as a fuller tummy will (surely) lead better sleep patterns. Sleep consultant Jolandi Becker from Good Night Baby offers more insight.

As sleep consultants we rarely advise on nutritional problems and always refer our clients to registered dieticians when we do suspect problems, this as we are sleep experts after all and NOT feeding experts.  However, when we’re working together with parents who have smaller babies, we always address the feeding issue before addressing the sleep.

ALSO READ: Setting the Page for A Good Night’s Sleep

When it comes to sleep and nutrition though, it can often be a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: If baby does not sleep well it can affect their feeding and if baby does not feed/eat well it can affect their sleep.  Below is a list of warning signs we look for regarding feeding issues, as these can indeed have a major impact on sleep.

Newborns (0 – 3 months)

Newborns will still drink milk at night. They are small, their stomachs are tiny and thus they cannot take large feeds and will wake up regularly to feed.  A newborn’s sleep is regulated by hunger, and most of the time when they wake up at night you can assume they are hungry (of course cramps, winds, reflux etc. can also impact their sleep patterns).  If a newborn is struggling with feeding, I can almost guarantee that they will struggle with sleeping.  To improve sleeping at this age it is critical to work on baby’s feeding, ensuring that the child is feeding well and taking proper feeds.  From a sleep perspective it is ideal for babies not to go longer than 3 hours without a feed during the day. However, there are many factors influencing breastfeeding in the early weeks so speak to a lactation consultant if you suspect a problem.

4 – 6 months

The World Health Organisation and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding until six months, and we agree with these recommendations. This will ensure the full health benefits of breast-feeding. The next feeding and developmental step would be to introduce solid foods.

Most health experts agree that, as with any other milestone, some babies are ready earlier and others later. Most babies show signs of readiness between 4 and 6 months to start on solids.  Never start solid foods before 17 weeks or after 26 weeks in healthy, full term babies.  If your baby was born prematurely these timelines will need to be adapted, so speak to your paediatrician first. Your baby must be developmentally and physically ready to start solids foods and should show signs of readiness.  There are risks to both starting solids too late and too early.

Although you may receive some critique from friends and family, all new infant feeding guidelines support starting protein at 6 months of age. Babies have a reserve of iron which they receive from their mother’s blood while they are in the womb.  Waiting too long after 6 months to introduce foods (especially animal proteins which are the best sources of iron), increases your baby’s risk of iron deficiency.  Iron is needed to create haemoglobin, which in turn helps carry oxygen throughout the body.  This is also important for restful, good quality sleep.  We recommend including protein in baby’s diet from 6 months onwards.

6 – 8 months

During this time parents can now move from introduction to exploration with food, and it can be difficult to get the balance between solids and milk right. Remember that milk is the most important source of nutrients up until 12 months, and we recommend that you fill baby up with milk and top up with solids.  Don’t compromise on milk to increase solids.  We usually keep a night feed to start with and give baby a chance to naturally push out the feed at night.

READ MORE: How To Introduce Baby-led Weaning

Baby’s sleep from 9 – 12 months

From this age healthy full-term babies may be ready to go through the night without a feed. However, many babies still want milk at night, especially if they are breastfeeding. Baby will make up for time lost during the day while mom was at work. One can start trying to reduce milk feeds at night. During this time is important to have a variety of foods, including iron rich foods during the day.

Toddlers (12 – 24 months)

After 12 months solids become the most important source of nutrients and with healthy toddlers, any milk feed at night can do more harm than good. Milk at night can fill them up, thereby reducing the amount of solids they eat during the day and increasing their risk of iron deficiency and obesity.

More often than not sorting out sleep and nutrition is done in combination but when we see that either or neither are improving after a week, we recommend that parents discuss these challenges with a dietician who specializes in infant or toddler feeding to ensure the feeding issues are successfully dealt with first.

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Managing Director of Good Night and mother of two. Jolandi has helped hundreds of families, and believes sleep is the fundamental building block of healthy living. She considers the education around better sleep as a passion rather than a job.