The truth about food and sleep is that THEY ARE SO CONNECTED.
They are both required for survival and the body requires both each day in varying amounts. We know that our children require lots of sleep, but we also know that they need meals as well – so let’s chat about timing.
Who knew that the timing of meals actually matters if we want our kids to sleep better?
Let’s take this on a scientific level. When we eat food, the digestion process starts as soon as that food enters our mouths. Once the food reaches the stomach, it mixes with our stomach acid and starts to break down – eventually leading into the small intestine, then the large intestine…and you know what happens next. Complete digestion can take anywhere from 24-72 hours.
When we eat a large meal, we have something called the gastrocolic reflex. It is a normal reaction the body has to eating food in varying intensities. When food hits your stomach, your body releases certain hormones. These hormones tell your colon to contract to move food through your colon and out of your body. This makes room for more food.*
With that knowledge – WHY do we feel like we need to make sure our children are “full” right before a nap or bedtime? Is it a myth that a full stomach leads to a longer sleep?
YES – it is a myth!
Once the digestion process has started, the body warms up as it is working. AND in order for sleep to happen, our internal body temperature has to cool down.
So what does this mean for nap time?
This means that TIMING IS EVERYTHING.
I recommend that if your child’s nap time is around 12:30pm, that lunch starts by 11:30am and finishes by 12:00pm. This will ensure that if a bowel movement is made, it happens before the nap. It also gives your child’s body some time to “cool down” after eating, meaning they will have a better quality of sleep – instead of wasting time tossing and turning due to discomfort in their bellies. It can also lengthen the nap because it will be of better quality.
The same thing goes for dinner. Have dinner at your normal time and if needed, offer a healthy snack 30-45 minutes before bedtime, but no more eating right up until bedtime.
The same goes for you, mama. If you would like to improve the quality of your sleep at night, try cutting off eating 1-2 hours before you go to sleep, and only drinking water after then if needed. I bet you’ll notice a big difference!!
I’m sure you can guess what my answer is to this question, since I am, after all, a sleep consultant. I tend to put a high priority on sleep and am, in my humble opinion, justifiably passionate about its benefits for babies and even adults.
But is my passion for sleep clouding my view on this matter, or is there evidence to support my position? Oh, I am SO glad you asked.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer that feeding our kids a healthy, balanced, varied diet is essential to their well-being. I might even go so far as to say that it’s the single most important factor when it comes to our children’s health.
But sleep is, if not equally as important, a very close contender.
Childhood obesity is a huge public health issue, and kids who are obese grow into obese adults, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about the myriad health issues that come along with obesity. (But just in case you’re not familiar, they include diabetes, heart disease, all kinds of cancer, osteoarthritis, and joint inflammation, just to name a few.)
But what does sleep have to do with obesity?
A 2008 study by the National Institute of Health looked at the average number of daily hours of sleep that kids between 6 months and two years old were getting, and then compared those results with their occurrences of obesity. The children who got an average of less than 12 hours of sleep a day were over twice as likely to be obese than those who slept for 12 or more. A much larger study done in the UK showed similar results.
With all of the health issues, as well as the general quality of life concerns that come along with obesity, it seems to me that sleep should be a major concern for parents.
However, every day I hear people advising new parents with what I’m sure is meant to be reassuring rhetoric, but I must admit, given the evidence, I find it really upsetting.
“Babies sleep when they want to sleep. Don’t force it.”
“Not sleeping is totally normal for a baby.”
“Just follow your baby’s lead. They know how much sleep they need.”
Can you imagine this same kind of talk if it was concerning baby’s diet?
“Babies know what’s healthy to eat. Just follow their lead.”
“Eating chocolate is totally normal for babies.”
“Kids will eat when they’re ready. You shouldn’t schedule mealtimes.”
If you heard those words coming out of anybody’s mouth, you would immediately qualify them as a lunatic, and you certainly wouldn’t listen to their advice on your kids.
As parents, we all obviously want our kids to live healthy, active lives, and we want to give them every advantage to ensure they get a good start. Making sure they get enough sleep, and teaching them solid sleep skills, will go a long way to promoting their overall health down the road.