Bedtime Snacks Help Kids Sleep

Bedtime Snacks Help Kids Sleep

Wendy Hunter, MDWendy Hunter, MD
Pediatrician | Mom | Founder of BabyScience.info
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If dinner is at 5:30 p.m. it makes perfect sense that your child will be hungry again at 8:30 pm. So, go ahead and give them a bedtime snack. They aren’t necessarily trying to postpone sleep; they might just need some calories to get them through the night.

Toddlers who wake up with the sun may have a circadian rhythm that tells them to get up very early (and apparently tells them to wake everyone else!) But these kiddos might wake up early because they are hungry. Twelve hours is a long time not to eat! So if your little one doesn’t ask for a bedtime snack, consider whether they may need one. Some children might not feel the sensation of hunger or recognize they are hungry. But their brain can still send signals that wake them up.

Two hormones, leptin and ghrelin regulate hunger. When we eat, leptin signals the body that we are satisfied and suppresses ghrelin, the hunger hormone. If you have enough leptin to suppress ghrelin all night you’ll sleep through the night. But when ghrelin is unleashed, your brain will be signaled to wake up and feed the body. Sometimes that happens at 2am.

Consider this: you may not think you are serving breakfast at 5:15am when you give your toddler a big cup of milk. But that is exactly what you are doing. Try giving your early riser a snack before bedtime for a week and see if they sleep just a little later. And keep the bedtime bite to a snack – not a heavy meal. The digestive system slows down when we sleep, so eating too much can be uncomfortable or over-stimulating.

Carbs help regulate the circadian rhythm

Eating a steady amount of calories throughout the day improves nighttime sleep by regulating the circadian rhythm. Researchers from Japan’s Yamaguchi University found that eating a carbohydrate-rich snack in the evening may help reset your circadian clock. Insulin influences the crucial sleep-regulating gene PER2 (in mice studies). Since carbohydrates (like crackers and fruit) increase insulin secretion more than protein and fat, they also help regulate your body’s PER2 cycles so that you’re drowsy at the right time of day.

Bedtime snacking may also help daytime behavior. Snacks definitely improve nighttime sleep, and good sleep improves kids’ behavior. But a bedtime snack can actually make a child more alert in the morning. And that means she may be more cooperative with putting on her shoes.

Giving any snack in the hour before bed will suppress hunger all night, though some specific foods may be more sleep-inducing. High fat foods interfere with all aspects of sleep and high protein snacks seem to affect the quality of sleep. So, what should we serve?

Pumpkin seeds and almonds – high in magnesium, which can relax muscles

Milk, turkey and hazelnuts – high in tryptophan, an amino acid that converts into melatonin, which helps the body sleep

Popcorn – carbohydrate-rich foods like popcorn increases tryptophan in the blood. Choose air-popped corn to reduce pre-bedtime fat consumption.

Cherries, bananas and pineapples – any fruit is a good choice, they all have complex carbohydrates and are low calorie. Cherries have the highest concentration of naturally occurring melatonin.

Kiwi – linked to longer sleep time in problem sleepers, possibly because its antioxidants regulate neurotransmitters that control sleep.

Proteins provide tryptophan. And carbohydrates make tryptophan more available to the brain. So combining a whole wheat cracker with almond butter – or even treating yourself to milk and cookies — will help you or your baby sleep like, well, a baby.


Sources

Chow, Chin Moi, and Christopher Paul Herrera. “Feeding and Sleep Behavior.” Handbook of Behavior, Food and Nutrition. Springer New York, 2011. 783-796.

Halson, Shona L. “Nutritional interventions to enhance sleep.” Sports Science Exchange 26.116 (2013): 1-5.

Knowlden, Adam P., Christine L. Hackman, and Manoj Sharma. “Systematic Review of Dietary Interventions Targeting Sleep Behavior.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (2016).


This post was originally posted on babyscience.info.

Wendy Hunter, MDAbout Wendy Hunter, MD

Dr. Wendy Hunter, MD is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at UC San Diego and practices pediatrics in the emergency department at Rady Children’s Hospital. She blogs at BabyScience on the science behind scary (but normal) baby symptoms and quirky kid behaviors. You can also find Dr. Hunter on Twitter and Facebook.

 

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63 Comments on “Bedtime Snacks Help Kids Sleep”

  1. My son goes to bed early so he eats dinner around 4:30 so he loves popcorn before bed. It fills him up and he usually falls asleep in his bowl,lol.

  2. Research is continuously evolving; promoting this and stopping that. Good eating habits, structural eating habits are very important. Call me old school, but I’ll stick with teaching my children to not eat after 7pm. I’m all about providing comfort and doing things to help them wind down for bed. A good glass of warm apple juice will do just fine. No snacks. I disagree

    1. Hey Danielle! Thanks for the comment. If your children are sleeping fine and not complaining about being hungry, then it sounds like everything is going just fine! However, as Dr. Hunter says in the post, 12 hours or so is a long time to go without eating. So for those parents whose kids are hungry at night, it’s good to take Dr. Hunter’s scientifically-backed suggestions.

  3. My daughter asks to eat something right before bed every night. I thought she was postponing sleep but after reading this it makes sense why she wants a snack.

  4. Bedtime snacks are a must!! I know this because I am an adult and I have one every night before bed time!!

  5. This is interesting. I am going to try this with my son. He is always up with the birds in the morning. The first thing he says to me is, “Mom, I’m hungry.” I wonder if doing this will help him.

    1. Yes, it could, Samantha! Hope it does! Please let us know how it works out.

    1. Glad you found it helpful, Jamie! An hour after dinner doesn’t sound like very long. Do they usually have big appetites at dinner?

  6. Absolutely agree! We eat dinner by 6 o’clock most nights, and our kids are almost always ready for a light snack around 7:30. Bedtime is at 8, and it helps wind them down, especially if we serve a warm snack, like toast or muffins…

    1. That’s great, Shannon! It’s cool to hear that you’re already doing this. Thanks for the comment!

    1. That’s great, Tiffany! Glad you still found this list of ideas helpful. Thanks for the comment!

  7. Wow this actually makes perfect sense! I really need to try this and make a list of things they’d eat. There are nights my boys will not sleep well at all and I notice they wake up hungry! Thank you for this as it was a great read and very informative!

  8. i’ll keep this in mind but we tend to do a late dinner so he is usually not that hungry before bed. he’ll usually just have some milk then go to sleep.

    1. No need to do it if it’s not necessary! Besides, milk is a great bedtime snack!

  9. Wow!! didnt know that but my son loves to snack on fruits and drink a bottle of milk before sleep. he always sleeps through the night

  10. We always have a snack before bed. A nice warm bath & a snack seems to help the kids fall asleep faster

  11. My toddlers usually eat a snack before bed. Sometimes they only sleep 5 hours. Sometimes 8. My 4 year old starts asking for food as soon as she wakes up. Any suggestions would be awesome. Thank you!

    1. Hi Carol, does you 4 year old snack before bed also? Going 8 hours without food is a long time, so even if she does snack before bed, she may still wake up fairly hungry. You could try contacting Dr. Wendy Hunter who wrote this post at http://babyscience.info/ and asking for other suggestions? Good luck!

  12. Great article! I always let my sons snack before bedtime, just had to make sure they brushed their teeth afterwards. They all slept through the night without a problem – after reading your article, it all makes sense now!

    1. Yes, definitely make sure they brush their teeth after. Good point. Glad you liked the article!

  13. My son always has a snack before bed….and he does sleep great! He also loves warm milk before bed, which was something I started with him when he was kindergarten. (my grandmother swore by warm milk before bed lol)

    1. That’s great, Susan! Milk is high in tryptophan, which helps you sleep, so there’s some definite scientific backing to your grandmother’s theory!

  14. Thank you for this article! I will have to try the night time snacking since my little one wakes up very early and can be very grumpy.

  15. My 2 yr old has been waking up earlier lately and her behavior suffers as a result. I’m definitely going to try giving her a bedtime snack to see if she sleeps later and is in a better mood. Thanks for the info!

  16. My 2 yr old has been waking up early lately and isn’t as pleasant as usual. I’m definitely going to try giving her a bedtime snack to see if that helps her sleep a little later and improves her behavior!

    1. Good luck, Lisa! Hope it works. If you think of it, let us know if you see any improvement? At that age it could be any number of things! LOL. But we’re very curious to hear how it goes.

  17. My sons love popcorn! They often have this as a bedtime snack with a glass of milk. I feel it does help them sleep through the night, especially my youngest son. Great article!

    1. That’s great, Kayla! It sounds like you already knew all this by intuition! Thanks for the comment.

  18. I’m so thrilled to have found and read this article! I have battled with my son about his nighttime eating. But…we do eat a very early dinner due to my husband’s work schedule (4:45 -5:20PM). Thus, it makes perfect sense he’s hungry. He has awoken at 4-5AM claiming to be “starving”. I know his choices are causing weight gain, though. So, I’m glad there are snack choices in this article, too. GREAT ARTICLE! Thank you!
    Candice E Sheets

    1. Hi Candice! So glad to hear that this was so helpful! Yeah, that’s about a 12 hour stretch, which is a long time to make your body go with no food. Thanks for the comment.

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