Help Your Kids Get More Zzzz’s
by Jess Sherman
Are your kids poor sleepers? Sometimes kids complain that they can’t fall asleep. Or maybe they get hyper or aggressive at night and it takes hours to settle them. Or perhaps they fall asleep but can’t stay asleep. Bedtime can be an incredibly stressful time for many parents so I’ll lay out some strategies for helping your child get a better night sleep.
The Importance of Sufficient, Quality Sleep
When our kids don’t sleep well everyone’s grumpier in the morning, that’s for sure. But lack of sleep has a deeper impact on your child’s health. It’s so important that it’s one of the very first things I assess and work on with my clients who are looking to improve the overall health and behaviour of their kids.
If your child isn’t sleeping well, their entire body struggles because sleep actually has an impact on every single body system. Poor sleep has been shown to influence weight, appetite and blood sugar; it can contribute to depression, poor tissue repair, reduced memory and ability to learn; it increases the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, ADHD, high blood pressure, and stroke. Even your child’s appetite and pickiness with food might be caused by not getting enough sleep because our hunger and satiety hormones, ghrelin and leptin, become dysregulated when we don’t sleep enough. And finally, production and function of many hormones, including growth, thyroid, and sex hormones also requires adequate sleep. Though she looks calm and peaceful, your child is hard at work when she sleeps!
The kicker for parents is that poor sleep leads a child into a vicious cycle. Cortisol, one of our stress hormones, is meant to be low at night; it steps aside in the evening allowing our bodies to release melatonin which slips us into sleep. Various studies have shown that when a person is chronically sleep deprived, their evening cortisol level can be higher by up to six-fold! When cortisol is high, the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system (that’s the branch associated with rest and regeneration) is never allowed to function properly. So poor sleep begets poor sleep!
So how do we break this vicious cycle and get our kids to sleep?
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine our kids should be getting 8-16 hours of quality sleep a night, depending on their age. Our sleep requirements reduces as we age. So let’s look at some of the contributing factors to poor sleep in kids and strategies to support them.
Support melatonin production
Melatonin is the main hormone that shuttles us into sleep. The body creates it from the amino acid Tryptophan with the help of zinc, B6 and magnesium. To support melatonin production here are a few things to try…
- Make sure your child’s bedroom is dark. Light interferes with production of melatonin. If your child insists on a nightlight, chose one that is blue or red and remove it once they have fallen asleep.
- Remove all electronics from the bedroom and insist on no TV, phone use or computer use 2 hrs before bed; the blue light from these devices interferes with melatonin production. If your child needs to do homework late at night, have them wear amber glasses or use an app called f.lux to reduce the impact of the blue light.
- Increase foods that are high in the amino acid Tryptophan like eggs, nuts, seeds and fish so their bodies have the nutritional building blocks for melatonin production.
- If these strategies for increasing melatonin naturally don’t help, talk to your health care team about giving your child a melatonin supplement. While I don’t consider this to be a long term strategy (after all, your child’s body should be making its own melatonin), it can be a helpful tool to break the vicious cycle by getting your child to sleep so their hormones can start to self regulate better.
A high stress, fast paced life can lead to an increase of circulating cortisol and inhibit the body’s calming neurotransmitters. It can also derail our body’s creation of melatonin from tryptophan. A few strategies to reduce stress…
- Build downtime into your child’s schedule. They might be at loose ends at first as they get used to this, but it’s important to teach our kids how to incorporate breaks into their busy lives.
- Encourage your child to work with their hands. Simple crafts, coloring, knitting, whittling – these all help the body and mind calm down.
- Introduce simple meditation. This might sound like a stretch, but our kids often surprise us! There are some simple meditation and mindfulness techniques you can do with your child to help activate their calming neurotransmitters. Search youtube for some simple ways to get started.
The discomfort of constipation can interfere with a good night’s sleep but can also be sign of deeper issues related to the microbiome. If your child has digestive issues like constipation, gas, bloat and belly pain here are a few things to try…
- Assess for food sensitivities that could be contributing to irritation in the gut. Dairy, gluten, chemicals and refined sugar are the top culprits though sometimes families need to look more deeply using testing or an elimination diet.
- Incorporate probiotic-rich fermented foods and drinks to keep the bowels regular and the digestive ecosystem healthy. Yogurt or kefir can be used if dairy is tolerated, or you can try mixing fermented vegetables into cooled soups or salads. You can even blend small amounts of fermented veggies into fruit smoothies if you have a good blender.
- Work with a practitioner to assess for an overgrowth of candida and clostridia species in the gut. These microbes can interfere with proper digestion but can also inhibit proper melatonin production by diverting tryptophan.
Feed for better blood sugar control
When blood sugar drops too low the body releases adrenaline in order to free up stored energy. If this adrenaline rush happens at night it can wake your child up. Keeping your child’s blood sugar more stable throughout the day can help the body coast through the night without this adrenaline release. Some things to try…
- Increase your child’s intake of healthy fats like coconut oil and olive oil throughout the day
- Increase their fibre intake, working up to 25g a day from vegetables, berries, nuts and seeds. It’s particularly helpful to include fibre at breakfast using foods like apple, psyllium, nut/seed butter, chia or hemp seeds (see my website for breakfast ideas)
Bed time can be a scary time for some kids; a time they feel unsafe, insecure and alone. This can flare their anxiety and keep them from relaxing. A few things to try…
- Give your child a way to connect with you while you’re not there by giving them something of yours to cuddle or by talking with them about meeting them in their dreams.
- Nutrient deficiencies including zinc, B6 and fatty acids can contribute to anxiety. Talk to your health care teams about assessing these levels and supplement if necessary.
Calcium helps the body convert tryptophan into melatonin and its deficiency is an often overlooked contributor to sleep problems. If you don’t think calcium needs are being met through diet consider a supplement. It’s always best to consult with a professional on supplements but if you do go this route be sure to add in a magnesium and a vitamin D/K2 combo as well; these will enhance absorption.
Sleep is when the body creates and resets hormones, detoxifies, and integrates knowledge. When our kids slip out of their natural sleep-wake rhythm, hormones get discombobulated; our kids cannot function properly, and their resilience is eroded. It can be tricky to tease out why your kids are not sleeping well, but creating a consistent sleep routine using these strategies can do wonders for their overall health, growth and development.
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Jess Sherman helps busy parents implement diet changes to improve the mental and physical resilience of their kids. Her book, Raising Resilience: Take the stress out of feeding your family and love your life and her online resources have reached families all over the world, giving parents a deeper understanding of the food-behaviour connection along practical strategies for feeding their kids with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders. For more strategies to raise resilient kids visit Jess at www.jesssherman.com