The Role of Diet in Children's Sleep Quality
  /   Dr. John Snow

The Role of Diet in Children's Sleep Quality

As children grow and develop into their unique selves, the importance of regular, high-quality sleep becomes paramount for maintaining health and happiness from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. However, when children experience sleep disturbances, it affects not just their well-being but also disrupts the sleep of their caregivers.

Struggles with falling asleep, nighttime awakenings, or joining you in your bed can significantly affect the entire family's sleep quality. Although there's no single dietary solution that guarantees perfect sleep, what children eat can influence their sleep patterns. Let's explore how diet impacts sleep quality and identify the most beneficial foods for promoting good sleep.

Getting Children to Sleep

Many kids face challenges with sleep, and studies indicate that up to half of them might encounter sleep difficulties at some point.

Ensuring our children get sufficient sleep is a significant priority for parents. We find ourselves closely monitoring nap schedules and setting appropriate bedtimes, all to sidestep the pitfalls of having an overtired and grumpy child.

This brings us to an intersection: how do diet and sleep relate, and what role does nutrition play in the quality of sleep our children get?

Your body needs the amino acid tryptophan to create melatonin. When you go to bed, your brain needs the hormone melatonin to help send you off to sleep. Tryptophan is mainly found in animal foods, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and legumes. Research suggests that diet promotes sleep duration and quality by providing foods that impact the availability of tryptophan and play a role in producing hormones that are important for sleep. 

Other nutrients that may influence sleep include: 

Proper nutrition involves ticking all the necessary nutrient boxes to support and maintain health and well-being. The types of foods our kids eat, when they eat, and specific macronutrients all appear to influence sleep quality

When Can Issues Arise?

Sleep is crucial for helping to prevent a variety of health factors, such as obesity, poor mental health, injuries, and attention or behavior problems. A healthy diet and lifestyle support a good night's sleep and help nurture quality lifelong sleepers. 

Navigating the link between diet and sleep in children can be a journey through different stages of their growth:

  • Infancy: The basics, such as how and when we feed them, alongside any allergies, can start to shape their sleep habits early on.
  • Toddlerhood: This is when picky eating comes into play, along with a penchant for snacking, often on sweets, which can mess with kids’ sleep.
  • School-age: Missing meals or indulging in sugary snacks in the afternoon and making less-than-ideal food choices can affect both their energy and their ability to get a good night's rest.
  • Adolescence: Here, caffeine, eating late at night, and stress-related snacking can introduce food habits that might not do their sleep schedule any favors.

As your child ages, if they aren’t getting enough sleep, you may start to notice signs such as: 

  • Poor school performance
  • Headaches 
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Upset stomach 
  • Trouble getting up in the morning 
  • Difficulty managing emotions 

The Impact of Food

You're likely well aware of the significance of a balanced diet and staying active for both your health and that of your children. But let's not forget, that consistent and quality sleep is just as crucial for overall health and happiness.

The relationship between sleep problems and obesity is complex, and the precise mechanisms at work are not totally clear. One review found that diets high in fiber, vegetables, fruits, and antioxidants and lower in saturated fat seem to encourage better quality sleep. It's been suggested that enhancing sleep quality could be a strategy to combat obesity in kids, encouraging healthier eating habits along the way. Indeed, sleep, diet, and physical activity form a trifecta essential for keeping a healthy weight at any life stage. 

When planning meals to help your kids sleep better, timing is also key.  Let’s look at how specific foods can impact sleep and our top foods to avoid for a more peaceful night. 

Too Much Sugar 

It probably comes as no surprise that too much sugar is the first thing to consider when it comes to sleep in children.

One study found that poor sleep quality was related to higher added sugar intake. Many people in the United States, both adults and children, have too much added sugar in their diets. One of the national objectives set out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Healthy People 2030 is to reduce the consumption of added sugars for everyone aged two years and over. 

The great news is you don’t need to completely cut out sugary treats from your life—moderation is key. Just try to keep sugar intake low, especially before bedtime, to ensure it doesn't interfere with a good night's sleep.


Did you know that caffeine is found in many products aimed at kids and teens, including chocolate, soda, and energy drinks?

Research indicates that caffeine intake can play a significant role in sleep disturbances among children. Just as many adults choose to avoid caffeine close to bedtime to ensure they sleep well, it's even more crucial for kids to limit their caffeine consumption overall.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, pediatricians recommend that children under 12 steer clear of caffeine altogether, and suggest that energy drinks are not suitable for children and teenagers of any age. Caffeine acts as a stimulant and can affect a child's sleep quality, even in small amounts. It's important to limit caffeine, particularly later in the day, to help ensure a restful night's sleep.

Some caffeine-containing foods to avoid could include:

Switching to High-Fat

Your diet and what nutrients you take in can really make a difference in how well you sleep. Experts have noticed that eating a lot of fatty foods, especially close to bedtime, or indulging in sugary snacks late at night, tends to lead to not-so-great sleep.

But here's the thing: fats aren't the enemy. It's all about the timing and the types of fats you choose. Studies show that including healthy fats in your diet, like those omega-3s found in fish and nuts, could actually help you catch some quality Z's. So, it's not about cutting out fats entirely but being smart about which ones you eat and when.

Meal Time

It's completely understandable for parents to worry about their child waking up due to hunger, which can lead you to serve dinner closer to bedtime. However, research indicates that it's best to avoid big meals right before sleep. A hearty lunch followed by a lighter evening meal is a wise strategy. Eating too close to bedtime can lead to discomfort in the digestive system, which might mess with sleep quality.

We know life gets hectic, and dealing with picky eaters can make meal planning even more challenging. If you're concerned about your child getting hungry at night, consider offering a bedtime snack that's gentle on the stomach. Here are some good options:

  • Whole grain crackers for a blend of comfort and nutrition
  • Vegetable sticks for a crunchy, fibrous snack

Some Top Tips

Sleeping is vital for children’s physical health, emotional well-being, growth, and development. Here are some tips to promote restful sleep for kids. 

Keep a Journal

Journals can be incredibly helpful as they help you to track what your child is eating and how they’re sleeping. Write down your child’s meals and snacks as well as sleep habits. You may not find anything, or you could spot a correlation between certain foods and sleep. Either way, tracking your child’s nutrition and sleep can give you plenty of data to make more informed decisions. 

Focus on Calcium & Magnesium

When looking at foods to help sleep, focus on sources of calcium and magnesium. Magnesium is a key mineral for sleep. Research suggests that magnesium intake is associated with sleep quality. Good sources of magnesium include: 

  • Dark leafy green vegetables (spinach and kale)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Legumes
  • An appropriate kids' supplement

Calcium is another crucial ingredient in a diet for better sleep as well as supporting healthy bones, growth, and development in kids. One study found that lower calcium levels may be associated with more disturbed sleep. Sources of calcium include: 

  • Dairy products 
  • Leafy green vegetables 
  • Fortified foods 
  • Tofu 

If you’re struggling to include these types of foods for sleep, consider trying a high-quality multivitamin like Hiya’s Kids Bedtime Essential. Our non-habit-forming chewable bedtime blend contains magnesium, calcium, and vitamins and minerals that are known to help kids relax before bed. 

Go for Foods with Proteins and Carbs

Foods for sleep often include proteins and carbohydrates. Try protein foods that contain tryptophan like nuts and seeds, tofu, and oatmeal. Research suggests that carbohydrates can help give tryptophan an edge. 

Foods that contain both protein and carbohydrates include: 

  • Nut butter and whole-grain toast 
  • Oatmeal 
  • Beans and legumes
  • Quinoa 

Routine is Key

While it’s important to think about diet and foods to help kids sleep, routine is essential to developing healthy sleep habits. Your child’s sleep routine includes consistent and repetitive activities that you carry out before bedtime to help prep the body and mind for a peaceful night’s rest. 

One study found that even just a few nights of a regular sleep routine can improve sleep in infants and toddlers. A winding-down routine should be about 30 minutes long and can include: 

  • Having a bath 
  • Reading a story together 
  • Listening to gentle music 
  • Practicing some light stretching 
  • Talking about their day 

Check the Bedroom

If your child struggles with sleep problems, consider checking the bedroom environment. There are many factors that can influence sleep, especially a bedroom environment conducive to sleep

  • Temperature: Maintain a comfortable room temperature for quality sleep. 
  • Light: Keep the room dark using blackout curtains to control early morning sunlight. 
  • Comfort: Choose a supportive mattress and soft, breathable bedding to create a cozy sleep environment. 
  • Noise: Minimize noise disruptions to help your child stay asleep throughout the night. 

Establishing Healthy Sleep Habits for Your Child

As our little ones grow up, their sleep requirements and routines change. Creating a consistent bedtime routine and sticking to regular meal times daily plays a crucial role in fostering healthy sleep habits. Keeping sugary treats and caffeine off the menu before bedtime is a simple yet effective way to encourage better sleep.

Instilling good sleep practices early on sets the stage for your child's overall well-being. By paying close attention to your child's diet and understanding how it might affect their sleep, you have the power to select foods that enhance sleep quality. This not only helps in the short term but also lays the foundation for healthy, happy habits that last a lifetime.

If you have concerns or questions about your child’s diet or adding supplements, make sure to talk with your pediatrician first.


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