Children’s sleep patterns are a regular topic for discussion in my clinic and when I’m with other mums. Disturbed sleep is a key area of concern for many parents with children often waking throughout the night having experienced night terrors or nightmares. These experiences can upset children and parents alike and can trigger a cycle of disturbed sleep, increasing stress levels for everyone and impacting on energy, mood, behaviour and concentration.
Nightmares and night terrors are very different, which is worth understanding. Night terrors are linked to waking suddenly from deep sleep and the child will not fully wake during these episodes. They may scream, jump out of bed and thrash about but they will have no recollection of this on waking the next morning. Night terrors often reach their peak in children aged 5-7 and then disappear in adolescence.
Nightmares, on the other hand, occur during dream sleep when the brain is most active and a child usually wakes from a nightmare and then can often remember and describe their dream, which can be very frightening and scary for them.
Aside from avoiding scary films and establishing a good bedtime routine there are some additional lifestyle and nutritional factors that may be helpful for managing/reducing such episodes.
1. Blood sugar balance? – There is some evidence that children can wake during the night because their blood sugar levels get very low. Focus on a protein rich evening meal and limit or avoid refined carbohydrates such as pasta, white bread and cakes.
Foods to try: Opt for more wholegrains (wholewheat pasta, bread) or look for alternatives (e.g. quinoa, courgette spaghetti), which will help to slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream maintaining stable blood sugar levels.
You could also try a high protein snack before bed – e.g. some cold chicken (on a stick like a mini kebab), handful of nuts/seeds, warm milk, hummus or nut butter/cottage cheese on an oat cake.
2. Low B3? – There are some links to low levels of vitamin B3 and lack of sleep, so perhaps focusing on foods rich in vitamin B3 may offer additional support.
Foods to try: Food sources for vitamin B3 include chicken, liver, beef, avocados, dates and nuts
3. Gluten? – There is some evidence that gluten from modern wheat products can affect people in very different ways. You might want to investigate a possible link. You could try omitting for several days, opting for alternatives and keep a food/sleep diary. This may be valuable evidence when investigating if there is a link.
Foods to try: You could opt for gluten-free products or you could try alternatives e.g. choose oat cakes instead of bread, try courgette spaghetti instead of pasta and try iceberg lettuce leaves as Mexican wraps.
4. Magnesium? Magnesium is required by the body for the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps the brain to calm and switch off. Magnesium can be found in many foods but research suggests deficiencies appear to be common today.
Foods to try: Foods rich in magnesium include seeds, green leafy vegetables, quinoa, oily fish, avocado and banana.
Lifestyle: Try Epsom Salts, which are rich in magnesium (1-2 cups) in the bath as part of your bedtime routine and you can also try a magnesium oil spray rubbed gently on your child’s back.
5. Digital Devices? – Ensure there are no digital devices, including computer hubs in the child’s room. Aside from the light such devices can emit there has been a lot of research around electromagnetic interference and sleep patterns, though at this stage the evidence is still conflicting but perhaps worth consideration.
A few other factors to consider include establishing a bedtime routine with some guided meditation before bed to calm the brain and prepare for sleep. Make sure the child sleeps in a dark room and avoid TV at least 1 hour before bed.
Try a few of the above and keep a note as one or a combination of the strategies may be hugely beneficial improving the sleep of the whole family. For more specific concerns consider a telephone, Skype or face-to-face appointment at The Food Teacher Clinic where a registered nutritional therapist can talk about your individual needs and support you through the development of a bespoke programme.