Bedtime snacks help kids sleep

If dinner is at 5:30 p.m. it makes perfect sense that your child will be hungry again at 8:30 pm. So, go ahead and give them a bedtime snack. They aren’t necessarily trying to postpone sleep; they might just need some calories to get them through the night.

Toddlers who wake up with the sun may have a circadian rhythm that tells them to get up very early (and apparently tells them to wake everyone else!) But these kiddos might wake up early because they are hungry. Twelve hours is a long time not to eat! So if your little one doesn’t ask for a bedtime snack, consider whether they may need one. Some children might not feel the sensation of hunger or recognize they are hungry. But their brain can still send signals that wake them up.

Two hormones, leptin and ghrelin regulate hunger. When we eat, leptin signals the body that we are satisfied and suppresses ghrelin, the hunger hormone. If you have enough leptin to suppress ghrelin all night you’ll sleep through the night. But when ghrelin is unleashed, your brain will be signaled to wake up and feed the body. Sometimes that happens at 2am.

Consider this: you may not think you are serving breakfast at 5:15am when you give your toddler a big cup of milk. But that is exactly what you are doing. Try giving your early riser a snack before bedtime for a week and see if they sleep just a little later. And keep the bedtime bite to a snack – not a heavy meal. The digestive system slows down when we sleep, so eating too much can be uncomfortable or over-stimulating.

Carbs help regulate the circadian rhythm

Eating a steady amount of calories throughout the day improves nighttime sleep by regulating the circadian rhythm. Researchers from Japan’s Yamaguchi University found that eating a carbohydrate-rich snack in the evening may help reset your circadian clock. Insulin influences the crucial sleep-regulating gene PER2 (in mice studies). Since carbohydrates (like crackers and fruit) increase insulin secretion more than protein and fat, they also help regulate your body’s PER2 cycles so that you’re drowsy at the right time of day.

Bedtime snacking may also help daytime behavior. Snacks definitely improve nighttime sleep, and good sleep improves kids’ behavior. But a bedtime snack can actually make a child more alert in the morning. And that means she may be more cooperative with putting on her shoes.

Giving any snack in the hour before bed will suppress hunger all night, though some specific foods may be more sleep-inducing. High fat foods interfere with all aspects of sleep and high protein snacks seem to affect the quality of sleep. So, what should we serve?

Pumpkin seeds and almonds – high in magnesium, which can relax muscles

Milk, turkey and hazelnuts – high in tryptophan, an amino acid that converts into melatonin, which helps the body sleep

Popcorn – carbohydrate-rich foods like popcorn increases tryptophan in the blood. Choose air-popped corn to reduce pre-bedtime fat consumption.

Cherries, bananas and pineapples – any fruit is a good choice, they all have complex carbohydrates and are low calorie. Cherries have the highest concentration of naturally occurring melatonin.

Kiwi – linked to longer sleep time in problem sleepers, possibly because its antioxidants regulate neurotransmitters that control sleep.

Proteins provide tryptophan. And carbohydrates make tryptophan more available to the brain. So combining a whole wheat cracker with almond butter – or even treating yourself to milk and cookies — will help you or your baby sleep like, well, a baby.

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Chow, Chin Moi, and Christopher Paul Herrera. “Feeding and Sleep Behavior.” Handbook of Behavior, Food and Nutrition. Springer New York, 2011. 783-796.

Halson, Shona L. “Nutritional interventions to enhance sleep.” Sports Science Exchange 26.116 (2013): 1-5.

Knowlden, Adam P., Christine L. Hackman, and Manoj Sharma. “Systematic Review of Dietary Interventions Targeting Sleep Behavior.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (2016).

TODAY.com Parenting Team Contributor

Author: Wendy Hunter, MD

Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, UC San Diego and pediatrician at Rady Children's Hospital, Department of Emergency Medicine.

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