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Sleep challenges are one of the most common problems parents share in our one on one nutrition care sessions. It often comes up as “oh and one more thing” after we’ve ticked through all the other problems! No one likes to reveal they’re in a household held hostage by a sleepless child. It can keep whole families awake and exhausted year after year, if a young family member has trouble sleeping.

If your child has sleep problems as well as aversions to light, noise, touch, clothing on skin, or varied food textures, sensory integration techniques can calm and organize their nervous systems to promote sleep at the right times. The other part of this equation is supplying the brain and nervous system with the right nutrients for calming chemistry, with helpful foods and nutrients.

Babies and kids normally drop off within 15-30 minutes on their own, once settled into a sleep pattern, and can usually stay asleep. When insomnia regularly disrupts this, the health costs start to mount: Immune function suffers, as can learning and developmental tasking during the day. Cortisol, a stress hormone, will rise and remain elevated at the wrong times, which has many negative effects on metabolism. Try this nutrition checklist for better sleep:

1 – Omit reactive foods. There are three types of reactions to foods: Allergy, sensitivity, and intolerance. Any of these problems can be active at once, and to more than one food. These can impede children for everything from growth and appetite to sleep and mood. It is harder to make calming brain chemistry when the food proteins we use to make it are triggering inflammation on a daily basis, or are poorly absorbed. The good news is, this is very responsive to nutrition care. In my practice, I use pediatric nutrition assessment tools to sort these out; lab testing may be needed, depending on the case. Ask your pediatrician or local naturopathic doctor where to start. If you have a hunch about a triggering food, trial a withdrawal period of at least one month; longer is better. If nothing improves, this may mean other foods were also problematic during the trial. This is when lab tests can help.

2 – What about gluten? Only if it bothers your child! If gluten sensitivity is active, it can disrupt sleep as well as absorption of many other nutrients. Migraines, poor focus/attention, weaker than expected growth, mood swings, or skin and stool changes can accompany gluten sensitivity. Click here for more on how to tell if gluten free diets and sensitivity screening are for you.

3 – Mineralize! The nervous system depends on a good supply of minerals to run neurotransmitter chemistry. Magnesium is especially useful here. Foods with magnesium include flax seeds, sesame tahini, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, and edamame (boiled soy beans). It’s common for kids’ diets to be low in magnesium, or for kids to have allergies to those foods. In that case, give your child a luxurious bedtime bath with Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) dissolved in the water. Use about a cup in a regular size tub, and less for smaller children bathing in less water. Both the magnesium and the sulfur will be absorbed through skin to enrich liver and digestive enzyme pathways, and calm nerve cell transmission. Add a drop or two of lavender essential oil to heighten the calming effect. Another easy go-to I often use is a liquid version of calcium and magnesium at bedtime. Many brands are out there – look for calcium citrate (better absorption than calcium carbonate) and magnesium glycinate (more calming, less laxative) in a 2:1 ratio. These shouldn’t have sugars or B vitamins in them because both can be stimulating. BlueBonnet is a brand often seen on store shelves. Others I like are Genestra, Pure Encapsulations, and other makers who have high quality products available only through health care providers. These are usually cleaner, with out cheap fillers, and are independently tested for potency and contaminant toxins. I work with professional supplement dispensaries and link these for my clients. If you would like to link to these dispensaries so you can order better and more reliable supplements, contact me here to let me know.

Iron is another key nutrient for sleep; insomnia is a symptom of poor iron status. Iron rich foods should be eaten often: Lentils, chick peas, kidney beans, pumpkin seeds, beef (organic and grass fed if possible), baked potato skins, and spinach. Herbs like nettles or chamomile contain iron and can be sipped as teas too. If these foods aren’t part of your child’s day, add a multivitamin with iron or an herbal supplement like Floradix Iron Plus Herbs. Don’t exceed 10 mg/day without medical supervision, since iron is toxic at the wrong dose. If you think your child may be low in iron, have your doctor screen ferritin and serum iron level in blood.

If you notice your child grinding his teeth at night, zinc may be part of the puzzle. It’s easy to supplement with zinc lozenges or enjoy nuts, seeds, organic pork or lamb, or shellfish, if you eat fish. Children can add 10-30 mg zinc/day if they are low in this nutrient. An easy way to use zinc for littles is in this tasteless liquid at 1 teaspoon/day.

4 – Eat more! It may surprise you to hear that not eating enough, rather than eating too much, is something I encounter very often in practice, when I evaluate children’s diets. Kids need a lot more food per pound than adults – they’re growing, and working hard to learn and neurologically integrate all the events of the day. A very general rule of thumb: Your child’s age in years + 1000 = a ball park figure for total calories per day. So, a 7 year old child should have about 1700 calories/day. If that child is very active, this will bump it up even higher. If that child is already underweight, the calorie needs go higher still. Waking at night after falling asleep readily is a sign that bigger meals or more snacks during the day may help your child sleep more soundly. Allow ample healthy fats and oils (coconut, avocado, nuts, seeds, nut butters, olive oil, organic dairy if tolerated, organic meats, and a supplemental fish oil are good sources), plus fresh fruits, whole grains, or calorie dense vegetables like beans, squashes, pumpkin, yams, or potato.

These are just a few steps for deeper, easier sleep. Supplements can help too, but it’s always best to start with food. For more information on using tools like melatonin, tryptophan, 5-htp, or other herbs and supplements for insomnia in children, see the chapter on sleep in Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free: Nutrition-Focused Tools To Help Kids Minimize Meds and Maximize Health and Well Being.