Can Certain Foods Keep My Child Awake at Night?

foods keep child awake at night

{Guest Post for Baby Sleep 101 (Joleen Dilk Salyn)} A parent recently asked Joleen this question. Being a food-related question, she forwarded it on to me: "We gave our 2.5 year old daughter Frosted Mini-Wheats right before bed. She slept worse than usual. Did the snack keep her up at night?" In other words, can certain foods keep my child awake at night?

In a nutshell: maybe.

Let me expand.

Mini-Wheats (original) have a fair amount of sugar in them – 10 grams in 21 pieces (that’s 2 ½ teaspoons of sugar).

When scientific researchers investigate the effect of sugar on kids, they find no effect on their behaviour. However, many parents do find that giving their kids foods high in sugar is associated with “hyper” behaviour.

I don’t have a way to explain this gap.

What I do know is that each person is unique. Many of us have sensitivities to foods that the scientific community can’t explain.

So, it could be that the sugar or something else in the cereal that interrupted this little girl’s sleep. Or, it could have been something completely unrelated.

With this in mind, I recommend being a bit of a scientist yourself with your kids – use your observation skills. If you’re finding that some nights your child goes to bed well and other nights are a struggle, do some record keeping. Take as detailed of notes as possible (yes, actually write it down) about everything that happened that day. Your child’s eating (both what they ate and at what times) is just one aspect of their day. Look for any patterns that arise.

Circling back to this parent’s original question, the cereal isn’t what I would suspect initially as the culprit for their child’s rough night. But I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility. I’d consider it after ruling out all the other more likely possibilities.

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Could What I'm Feeding My Toddler be Keeping them Awake?

 Feeding My Toddler Keeping AwakeCould What I’m Feeding my Toddler be Keeping them Awake? I'm often asked by parents about what foods are best at bedtime. And, if there's anything they shouldn't feed their kids before bed. There’s a lot of old wives tales and urban myths about foods and food ingredients either helping or hindering sleep, thus keeping toddlers awake. However, there isn’t strong evidence connecting specific foods and sleep –either preventing sleep or causing kids to fall asleep (and stay asleep).

Here’s a roundup of the most common foods that we hear are connected with sleep.

A Glass of Warm Milk

A glass of warm milk is a classic trick to help kids fall asleep. However, it’s unlikely that it’s the milk itself that makes kids sleepy. What’s more likely is that it’s the routine that gets kids ready for sleep. Kids thrive with routines. It signals to them what’s about to happen next in their world and it tells them what’s expected from them. This includes bedtime routine.

If you choose to have a bedtime snack, have a bedtime snack every day. Serve your child’s bedtime snack in the same place every day (I recommend sitting at the table). Join your child while he/she’s eating and have a conversation. Don’t talk (negotiate) about having two more bites. Instead enjoy the opportunity to connect, perhaps telling stories, talking about your day, etc. Then brush teeth and continue with the rest of the bedtime routine.

Sitting to eat together is an opportunity to connect with each other and wind down from the day. It’s a fantastic way to get kids prepared for falling asleep.


Interestingly, when it’s tested in scientific studies, sugar doesn’t cause kids to be more active. Yet, countless parents can tell you that sugar makes their kids “hyper”. If your little one is having difficulty falling asleep, try keeping sugary treats as occasional daytime foods (as opposed to evening foods) and see if it has an effect on your little ones’ sleep.

Artificial Colours

There is mixed evidence in scientific studies about the effect of artificial colours and the preservative sodium benzoate on kids’ behaviour. Some studies have found that there is no effect on kids’ behavior. Other studies have found that some kids don’t react to these foods but some kids do react. The way to find out if your child is a member of the group of kids who may react, is to eliminate all foods with these additives from your child’s diet for a period of time and see if there’s a change in her/his behavior. Label reading for these foods can be challenging. So, if you’re thinking of testing your child’s reaction to an elimination diet, I recommend working with a dietitian to make sure that you’re catching all food sources and still making sure that your child’s getting all the nutrition that she/he needs.

Food Negotiations

Waking up hungry in the middle of the night can be a side-effect of battling at mealtimes with toddlers who are picky eaters. No-one loves a negotiation like a toddler! Unfortunately, they can enjoy winning the battle so much that they ignore their feelings of hunger resulting in waking up in the middle of the night because they’re hungry.

While it feels awful to hear a child tell you that they’re hungry, resist feeding them a snack in the middle of the night. Feeding snacks in the night rewards kids for not eating at mealtimes. Also, it role models eating snacks in the middle of the night (which we don’t want to encourage). Instead, focus on removing the battles at daytime meals and snacks. How to remove the battles? Well, that’s what I share with you here at my blog. Sign-up to never again miss a toddler nutrition tip (or recipe).

Sleep Health Advice (Guest Post)

SD_LOGO_NEW_TM_CA (1)Today is the first of a new way that I'm offering to help you get the answers that you're looking for. Often parents ask me for recommendations for services beyond feeding and nutrition. So, I'll be sharing articles from folks whom I've hand-picked for their expertise. My first pick - Sleep Consultants. Why? Because sleep is the #1 most common topic that I'm asked about. Also, sleep consultants are a fairly unregulated field so it's buyer beware. Which, in my opinion, isn't very fair for exhausted parents. SleepDreams is who I recommend. They're all real health professionals - Occupational Therapists to be specific and they all are experts in working with kids and sleep.

Here's advice form Jennifer Garden, of SleepDreams.

ENJOY! Kristen

In the quest for more sleep, there is no shortage of opinions from friends, family and even perfect strangers. Most babies by 5 months of age should be 'sleeping through the night'. This means that they should be sleeping at least 6 hours consecutively, or what researchers call 'a long sleep trajectory'. Canadian researchers have looked at when a baby typically demonstrates this skill and it is at 5 months of age. Research also shows that approximately 25 - 30% of infants at 5 months do not sleep a continuous six hours.  They indicate that intervention is the key to helping a child obtain more solid sleep as they do not just 'grow out of it'. Here are some helpful sleep tips for parents with babies over 5 months:

  • Make sure you have a bedtime routine that is predictable (perhaps a bath, change into PJ's, feed, clean teeth, story, song, put to bed).
  • Keep bedtime at around 7:00pm - 7:30pm. Melatonin, the 'sleep' hormone, is typically released by the body at this time which helps your baby get off to sleep.
  • Keep wake up time in the morning and put to bed time at night consistent. This consistency sets the circadian rhythm (the body's natural clock that tells us when to wake and sleep).
  • It is unrealistic to expect your baby to sleep long stretches without night feeding until about 7 or 8 months of age (this depends on the baby and is variable).  Some children sleep longer stretches than 6 hours at a young age but most do not. The gold standard is to achieve 6 hours by 5 months.
  • Changing your baby's diet, e.g. supplementing with formula or starting solids before 6 months does not help s baby sleep longer. Research indicates there is no change in a baby`s sleep patterns who received solids before bedtime when compared to babies who were not given solids.  In fact, early introduction to solid foods maybe associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, adult-onset celiac disease, and eczema.

Lack of sleep in children pre-disposes them to health risks such as obesity and mood disorders. Researchers discovered that some school aged children were misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder when in fact they just were not getting enough sleep! Here are some tips to help with your toddler's sleep:

  • Most children try to miss naps. This generally happens sometime after 2 years of age. This does not mean they are ready to stop napping; they are exerting themselves more as independent little beings, which is exciting, they are growing up! Most children need to nap until the age of 4 or 5 years. Keep persistent with the schedule and you will find your toddler will fall back into the routine of needing his/her nap.
  • Bedtime resistance is one of the most common problems at this age. Try using some positive behavioural approaches, e.g. get down to their level when talking to them. Avoid getting into a power struggle; use empathy and redirect them to the desired activity e.g. brushing teeth, putting on pyjamas. Set limits to the number of stories or songs you will have and make sure to stick with this agreed upon limit.
  • Avoid television/screen time. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends no television for children under the age of two. At three years children will be at the most physically active stage of their entire life. Make sure you embrace this active fun time and provide them with lots of opportunities during the day to run, jump, swim, hang from monkey bars, and slide down slides. This will help them achieve the daily movement their body craves and also helps with night time sleep. If your child watches TV or has any screen time (computers, smart phones etc...), limit their exposure to 20 minutes and make sure this activity is at least 2 hours prior to bedtime.

Preparation for bedtime should be a calming, relaxing time of the day when you unwind with your kids. So often it can be a struggle and strain on a family. It takes patience to help your children learn to get to sleep by themselves. Additional patience can be found through getting some more sleep yourself. Just like when you are on an airplane and you don your own oxygen mask first, you need to care for yourself so that you can care for another. Turn off the television, computer or smart phone early to rest your mind and try to get additional physical exercise which helps kids and adults alike with sleep.

If you need help to sort through the many reasons your little one isn’t getting to sleep or sleeping well through the night, call Jennifer and her team of registered occupational therapists today. Most extended health care plans cover the cost of occupational therapy!



Jennifer Garden, B.H.K., MClSc. OT, MSc, is a registered occupational therapist and mom of twins, who specialises in sleep for infants and children in her private practice, Sleepdreams. She is also active in the area of sleep research with the Sleep2Treat research group at Sunnyhill and Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. Visit her at