Why Your Charge Isn’t Sleeping Properly: A Dietitian Explains

Photo by ___ via Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo by ___ via Flickr Creative Commons.

by sarah hults, RDN, LDN

It's 11:30 p.m. and you're exhausted, eyes bleary, pleading with a five year old to simply close their heavy eyelids. Does any of this sound familiar? Do you find yourself dealing with this on a nightly basis? Is it a stage? Are their parents feeding them coffee or coffee-flavored treats?

Perhaps not. Perhaps it has less to do with their stage of development and is more about the child's diet. The culprit of this pesky new habit may not even be the most obvious choice: sugar. It could in fact be a food intolerance, food allergy, or even a mineral deficiency. Any of these ailments can interfere with a child's behavior, which can ultimately influence their nutrient absorption, energy level, and thus their sleep pattern. How can you tell a food intolerance may be the reason for why your charge isn’t sleeping properly at night?

Omit higher-risk foods that are known to cause issues. That is not to say that if your charge isn't sleeping well for a week that you should remove corn, soy, and gluten from their diet, but if their sleep is being disturbed consistently and other sleep inhibitors are ruled out, these foods may be to blame. If you need help with ruling foods out, consult a registered dietitian for help in determining which foods should be removed first. If you sense that there is an allergy at play, consult the pediatrician.

What if you don't believe that it is a food allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity? Could your charge be mineral deficient? It is a possibility and more often than not your picky eater can be omitting large groups of micronutrients by only eating a select group of "safety foods" that they commonly enjoy. It is common for children's diets to be low in minerals, but minerals help the neurotransmitters of their brains work efficiently and are important during the formative years of childhood.

Insomnia may also be an indicator of poor iron status. Iron is a key nutrient for sleep, required for proper red blood cell formation and oxygen transportation. Insufficient sleep interferes with memory, learning, attention, and mood, which will most definitely begin to alter the day for yourself and your charges. Adequate sleep restores us physically, mentally, and emotionally. It facilitates learning and helps us concentrate and retain information. If your charge isn't eating correctly this could affect their sleep patterns, which in turn affects their behavior, which in turn affects their ability to focus, learn, and retain knowledge. Some food sources of iron include meat and nonmeat foods such as red meat, poultry, and fish, while vegetarian sources include beans, tofu, and spinach. Each of these sources of iron may be consumed daily to increase the iron levels of an iron-deficient child, animal sources being more easily absorbed than their vegetarian counterparts.

So next time your charge wakes frequently in the night, the blame may not be placed on the child; it may be their diet.