Did you know nutrition can play a huge role in how well (or poorly) your child sleeps? One reason I chose nutrition as a career path is that my second-to-youngest child didn’t sleep through the night for the first 3 1/2 years of his life. Yes, you read that right. 3 1/2 YEARS.
If you have a child with ADHD, autism or SPD, you know how challenging it can be to help them sleep. We went to multiple doctors, tried everything you can think of, and endured plenty of well-meaning but ignorant advice on what we could do better. His health (and mine) suffered greatly before I made changes to support a better night’s sleep. Read below for some of my favorite tips to help your child sleep better.
1. Make sure they consume enough minerals. Magnesium gets a lot of attention because it plays an important role in over 300 functions in the body. It not only helps kids relax before bed, but it can also reduce anxiety, muscle cramps and growing pains, hyperactivity, and constipation. Food sources include avocados, nuts & seeds, dark leafy greens, and black beans.
Have them soak in an Epsom salt bath, try a magnesium citrate drink before bed (like Natural Vitality Calm), or a magnesium lotion or oil. If you use the lotion or oil, test a small patch on your child’s skin first. It can sting a bit, so start with small amounts.
Calcium and zinc are equally important. Most people think of dairy when they want to increase their calcium, but dark leafy greens, sardines, and sesame seeds are also rich in this important mineral. It’s not uncommon for neurodiverse kids to be deficient in zinc. Foods rich in zinc include grass-fed beef or lamb, pumpkin seeds, lentils, chickpeas, cashews, and turkey.
2. Feed them high-quality protein. This important macronutrient contains important amino acids that support mood, and it helps keep blood sugar stable. Dysregulated blood sugar can impact sleep, exacerbate mood and behavior, and more. Try hard-boiled eggs, nuts, fatty fish like wild-caught salmon, legumes, organic poultry, or grass-fed beef.
3. Rule out food allergies, intolerances or sensitivities. If your child reacts to foods that fall into any of these categories, it could contribute to inflammation, impaired gut health, mood and behavior issues, and sleep disturbances. Work with your pediatrician and nutritionist to identify problem foods.
4. Try kid-safe herbs. I love teas and tinctures with gentle herbs that promote rest. Some of my favorite recommendations include Mountain Rose Herbs Quiet Child tea, Traditional Medicinals Nighty Night tea, BioRay Kids NDF Sleepy Herbal Drops, and Gaia Herbs Calm Restore for Kids.
5. Don’t feed them right before bed. Our bodies need time to digest food, and going to bed on a full stomach can prevent your child from settling into sleep. Aim for their last meal to be 2-3 hours before bed. If they do need a small snack, offer a hard-boiled egg, a handful of nuts and blueberries, hummus with a few veggie sticks, or a banana with sunbutter.
6. Supplement with Omega-3s. These essential fatty acids (EFAs) support brain health, improve mood, and help with sleep quality. If your child will eat fish, opt for wild-caught salmon, sardines, trout, or herring (avoid high-mercury fish like tuna). Supplements are an easy way to make sure your child gets enough. Nordic Naturals has great options for all ages, include an algae-based version for kids who can’t take fish oil.
7. Avoid foods that disrupt sleep. This includes processed and junk foods, added and unnecessary sugars, sugary beverages, and caffeine. Besides disrupting sleep, these foods promote inflammation, dysregulate blood sugar, impair gut health, and can exacerbate issues with mood, behavior, and focus.
You might have noticed I didn’t include supplementing with products like melatonin, 5-HTP, or GABA or other amino acids. These are all great options, but they need to be tailored for each child because some can interact with medications. Please work with a qualified nutritionist who can guide you on appropriate products, dosages, and offer personalized support.
Also, look at your child’s environment. Some children are especially sensitive to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). EMFs are emitted from your child’s favorite electronics, so it’s good to remove devices from the bedroom, turn off the wireless router at night, and cut off screen time 2-3 hours before bed (the blue light emitted from these devices also disrupts sleep). Also consider using a diffuser with calming essential oils, a white noise machine, a weighted blanket, and incorporating a relaxing routine, such as a warm bath followed by a story and snuggle.
If none of those options work, your child might benefit from additional support, which could include a sleep study or a visit to a pediatric chiropractor or functional medicine pediatrician.
Here’s to a good night’s sleep!