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Nutrition tips to help your child sleep

Naughty Nana has landed and the girls are beside themselves with excitement. There was the usual avalanche of generous gifts (mainly chocolate, dresses and shoes – how perfect!!) and then their very favourite thing: stories in the bath. Last night Nana told them a tale about a princess kissing a frog that turned into a unicorn (actually I got lost after that) but then she also told them about attending her friend's funeral. This particular friend had a wicker coffin (think over-sized picnic basket) and was buried in a quarry. Belle was equal measures fascinated and horrified (me too) and, funnily enough, ended up in our bed at 2am.

Once my little visitor appeared, I took the short-term-gain, long-term-mistake route and just threw back the covers. I then spent the next four hours being pushed off the bed and kicked in the head by a tiny human radiating heat and running in her dreams. Then, about three minutes before the alarm clock went off, I fell into a deep and contented sleep. Waking up was like receiving a shot of adrenaline to the heart, but actually getting out of bed was a challenge. Yet, despite the stupor, I have been in all day, there's a positive side too. It's been a long time since I've felt sleep deprivation like it. It took the bad to see the good. My kids are great sleepers, finally.

A good night's sleep is the Holy Grail of early years' parenting. If your children slept through from three months old I a) don't want to know you and b) suspect there may be Benedryl in your cupboards. Mine finally made it at nine months, but then came the ear infections, throw-up bugs and potty training that make consistent sleep a thing of the past. So, to realise I am in a spot where they generally sleep well and that I do too (work madness aside) is a big deal.

As a nutritionist, I get asked about sleep a lot, especially as it relates to kids. It can be an important piece of the puzzle when we're looking for causes of a problem, or assessing symptoms of another. If you have kids that Just Won't Sleep, then let's review some of the major nutrition triggers. Over the years, both professionally and as a mum, I have found a few things that can make a big difference. Here are my tips:

1. Avoid sugar before bedtime

You'll probably know if your child is sugar-sensitive. I have one that remains immune, but one that bounces off the walls when she eats sweet things (or has Red 40 God forbid). If you are offering dessert after dinner or sugary cereals before bed, try rethinking it. On birthdays or special events we often do “backwards dinner” where we have the cake (or whatever it is) when they come in from school. Then we just have regular dinner later and there's enough time for the madness to wear off.

2. Consider a healthy bedtime snack

“But I'm hungry!”: the ultimate bedtime delayer because it's so hard to send a hungry kid to bed, especially if they did eat their dinner! Tip: make it boring or at least not exciting (so they only ask for it if they are genuinely hungry) and choose a complex (slow-releasing) carb or something protein-rich. Ideas include: oatmeal with vanilla, cinnamon (and maybe a few raisins but skip the honey or maple syrup), wholegrain bread and butter, or crackers with a slice of ham or turkey.

3. Watch out for caffeine too

I'm pretty confident you're not reaching for the Red Bull or whipping up a latte for your toddler. Just remember that dark chocolate contains caffeine too, albeit less than a regular cup of coffee even for a large portion. I gave the girls strawberries with homemade dark chocolate sauce after dinner the other day and they took forever to settle down. So if you have dark chocolate as a healthier option at home, just keep the caffeine content in mind. Note that Coke, Sunkist and cream soda all contain caffeine as do some Propel and vitamin waters.

4. Balance blood sugar through the day

In my experience, kids with better balanced blood sugar in general sleep better at night. Try keeping blood sugar on an even keel by avoiding refined/processed carbs and sticking to whole foods that are high in fibre. Where you can, include some natural protein at snack time and with meals. Eg, add nut butter to apple slices or have hummus with veggie sticks. Serve chicken with pasta or scrambled eggs on wholegrain toast (don't forget the veg!)

5. Consider food allergies or sensitivities

Many of us think that food reactions are limited to breathing difficulties, digestive issues or a skin rash. However, reactions can also include behavioural and sleep disturbances. If your child has unexplained sleep issues, consider raising the possibility of food sensitivity with their doctor - especially if the problem occurs in conjunction with slowed thought processing, irritability, agitation, aggressive behaviour, nervousness, anxiety, depression, ADHD or hyperactivity.

6. Get enough calcium, but enough magnesium too

We're all very focused on calcium - with good reason. It's essential for growth and development. But when kids have a high dairy intake - and especially if they don't like their greens - they might be low in magnesium, an essential mineral that helps children calm down and sleep well. Dietary sources of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, spinach, quinoa, black beans, broccoli, cashews, oats, tuna and raspberries. Supplementation can be discussed with your pediatrician or a fully qualified nutritionist.

•The advice in this article is not to replace medical advice but to complement it. Always consult your GP if you have any health concerns. Catherine Burns is the managing director of Natural Ltd and a fully qualified nutritional therapist trained by the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in the UK. Please note that she is not a registered dietitian. For details, go to or call 236-7511. Join Catherine on Facebook: Natural Nutrition Bermuda

Dream situation: a good night's sleep is the Holy Grail of early years' parenting

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Published May 19, 2017 at 9:00 am (Updated May 19, 2017 at 9:00 am)

Nutrition tips to help your child sleep

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