As parents, one of the most common concerns revolves around ensuring our little ones get the sleep they need for healthy development. While sleep training, naps, schedules and bedtime routines play crucial roles, the impact of nutrition on a baby's sleep patterns is often underestimated. In this blog post, I will delve into the relationship between breastfeeding, formula feeding, introducing solids, and the quality of a baby's sleep.
Breast milk is often considered nature's perfect food for infants and if you are lucky enough to breastfeed we often find that breastfed babies tend to wake more in the night for many reasons. One being that breast milk is digested far quicker than formula so the stomach empties sooner and therefore baby is hungry…again!
Breastfeeding can also influence a baby's sleep patterns. The reason lies in the composition of a mother’s breast milk, which contains substances like tryptophan and melatonin, both known for their sleep-inducing properties.
Tryptophan, an amino acid found in breast milk, plays a role in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and sleep. Additionally, melatonin, the sleep hormone is responsible for regulating sleep-wake cycles, is present in breast milk in higher concentrations during the night, it is virtually undetected during the day. This could contribute to establishing a natural circadian rhythm in infants, promoting more extended periods of sleep at night and why so often we find naps tricky.
Many families I speak with who are having difficulties at night often ask “should we just offer formula at night?” My answer is always no, not if you do not want to. As I mentioned in the paragraph about breastmilk, is takes longer to digest that is why formula fed babies seem to sleep longer stretches at night then breastfed babies.
Formula while obviously provides essential nutrients, it may lack some of the sleep-promoting components found in breast milk. Some formulas are enriched with nutrients designed to mimic the benefits of breast milk, including those that can support sleep. However, the precise composition can vary between brands and types of formula.
If your baby is getting enough calories during the day from milk (be it formula or breast) then this will help promote healthy sleep at night time. Once a child is on solids this will also aid night sleep BUT eating solids it is not always the answer to night sleep difficulties.
The introduction of solid foods marks an exciting and significant milestone in your baby's development, contributing not only their nutritional intake but also potentially influencing sleep patterns. As babies start exploring the world of solids, parents may notice shifts in sleep routines.
It is vital to consider the timing of introducing solids to your baby’s diet. Some parents find that introducing a small, nutrient-rich solid meal in the evening can help keep a baby feeling full and satisfied, potentially leading to more extended periods of sleep. However, it's crucial to introduce solids gradually, first by offering them at lunch time. This gives time to digest any food taken before the night starts and most importantly if your child reacts to any foods that could disrupt sleep you have the rest of the day to spot any signs.
Milk can be a favourite for many children and preferred choice of drink however it can impact on appetite for solids, when the time comes for your baby to snack as well as take meals if they take multiple feeds they will not take full feeds or have enough of an appetite for a solid meal and then this is a vicious cycle of snack feeding vs. solid food.
A child may fill up on a feed and come mealtimes not want any food. Half an hour later they become hungry because milk alone will not sustain hunger like solids do and this can shift the circadian rhythm and this impacts negatively on sleep greatly.
Proteins and Slow Release Carbs
It is often thought to wait until about 8 month to introduce meat proteins because that is what guidance was about 5+ years ago. Now we know that iron stores that was passed from mum to baby during pregnancy has completely depleted by 6 months and breastmilk and/or formula will not fill those stores back up, it needs to come from meat proteins/iron. It is important to introduce them between 6-7 months. You can listen more about nutrients in my PODCAST HERE I did with Naomi O’ Conner, nutritionist where she spoke in depth about the need for these nutrients and more in a baby’s diet from 6 months.
Slow release carbohydrates can really help with toddler night sleep. Offering a snack before bedtime such as a wholemeal muffin, oat based snack, brown pasta… can help sustain any hunger pangs there and help with early morning waking’s your child may be experiencing.
If early waking is a thing in your home and you are looking for solutions to resolve them you will find all the answers in THIS GUIDE!
What on earth are these I hear you ask…?! Well, we all have hunger hormones called Ghrelin and Leptin. They are constantly at work and they do impact your baby’s sleep.
Ghrelin is often referred to as the "hunger hormone" because it stimulates appetite. In babies, ghrelin is released by the stomach when it's empty, sending signals to the brain that it's time to eat. Higher levels of ghrelin make a baby feel hungry, encouraging them to feed and take in those important nutrients.
Leptin, on the other hand, is known as the "satiety hormone." It is produced by fat cells and signals to the brain when the body has had enough to eat. As a baby consumes milk or food, fat cells release leptin, sending signals to the brain that the baby is satisfied and can stop eating. Leptin helps regulate the feeling of fullness and contributes to maintaining a healthy balance in food intake.
Secreted from the stomach, Responsible for telling the brain you are hungry.
A hormone produced by the fat cells in the body. Responsible for telling the brain you are full.
But how does this impact your baby’s sleep?
NOT ENOUGH SLEEP
Low Ghrelin/ Normal appetite
High Ghrelin/ More hungry
High leptin / satisfied after eating
Low leptin/ Unsatisfied, even after eating
So you can see when a baby wakes in the night many times and they still feed, this is because they have a high level of Ghrelin and the low level of Leptin is telling the body they are still hungry. I am sure when you have been tired you eat food, snack, and still do not feel satisfied. This is the same concept in babies.
It is also important to know that if your baby is tired, not had enough sleep it is very normal for them to seek more feeds to satisfy that hunger feeling.
While nutrition is just one piece of the puzzle that is baby sleep, it undoubtedly plays a role in shaping sleep patterns. Whether through the natural sleep aids found in breast milk, the carefully balanced nutrients in formula, or the introduction of solids, you can make informed choices to support your baby's sleep.
As always, it's essential to consult with paediatricians if you have any doubts or concerns over your child’s nutritional health and /or seek advice from a certified lactation consultant.
When I support parents in reaching their sleep goals for their child I pay attention to their individual baby cues, and take on a holistic approach that considers nutrition, routine, and a nurturing safe sleep environment for the healthiest sleep outcomes.
Want to talk more about your baby's sleep and get some insights to resolving those sleep challenges? Book a FREE sleep assessment call with me today!
As always, happy sleeping…and eating,
Your Paediatric Sleep Consultant