Is food keeping your baby (and you) awake?

"Healthy foods" may be causing sleep problems.
"Healthy foods" may be causing sleep problems. Photo: Getty Images

Mia was a beautiful baby; eight months old, crawling, happy and healthy. But her mum Fiona was exhausted and questioning everything she was doing with her baby, because Mia was waking 10 times a night. Fiona was soothing her back to sleep with a breastfeed every time she woke up, and it was leaving her exhausted.

Although there can be a number of reasons for babies this age to wake more often – teething, separation anxiety, ‘practising’ new mobility skills in their sleep – when I learnt that Mia’s favourite food was broccoli, I suspected Mia’s reason for waking could be related to her healthy diet.

It seemed that Mia loved munching on broccoli ‘trees’, so, as it’s a healthy food, Fiona had been giving her broccoli every night with her dinner.  To see if it made a difference, I suggested she cut it from Mia’s diet, as well as her own – and after the second day, Fiona called to say that Mia had only woken at 10pm, and had the slept until 5am!

Every few days, I received another email telling me of Mia’s progress. Fiona was a new woman with all the sleep she was getting, but she wasn’t game to reintroduce broccoli to double check that it was the culprit for Mia’s wakefulness. Sleep was too precious!

Another mum, Samantha, had been on holidays overseas, and while away her 10-month-old son Jake had started waking frequently. Jake was formula feeding so Samantha was soothing him with a mixture of bottles, rocking and popping his dummy in. This waking had gone on for a few weeks, and Samantha had already had a sleep trainer into her home – but Jake’s sleep hadn’t improved.

When looking for a cause, we discussed Jake’s diet, and it turned out that Samantha had taken pouches of ready-made baby food on holiday. Now they were back, Jake was refusing to eat Samantha’s home-cooked food. Of course, because Jake’s waking had coincided with the family holiday, there was a chance it could be related to the adjustment of being in an unfamiliar environment, or perhaps a recent cold or teething. But it was definitely worth seeing if diet was an issue –and it was a simple thing to change.

I sat with Samantha and we read labels on the organic baby food sachets she had in her cupboard, and we learnt that almost all the pouches had either apple or tomato mixed in with the vegetables. Although these are nutritious foods, apples and tomatoes are high in salicylates, naturally occurring chemicals found in a number of otherwise healthy foods, including grapes, berries and citrus. Salicylates are also found in broccoli, which had caused trouble for Mia and her mum.

Samantha carefully checked labels on the baby food sachets and began mixing her own homemade food with the store-bought food. She kept increasing the amount of home-cooked food until Jake was eating all homemade food again.

She also read up on food chemicals on the website Fed Up, and eliminated foods that were high in salicylates. In a week, Jake was only waking once a night.

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Although both Fiona and Samantha had been very conscious about feeding their babies healthy, natural foods, they had learnt the importance of checking labels on processed foods, and to avoid additives that may cause restlessness in babies and small children.

Tracking down offending foods in your child’s diet can take some trial and effort, especially when you’re already exhausted. In the long run, however, it could lead to more sleep.

If you think wakefulness may be related to foods in your baby’s diet – or your own, as it can pass through your breast milk – keep a food diary to see if there seems to be a link. If there appears to be a ‘cause and effect’ between foods in your diet and your baby’s crying or frequent waking, an inexpensive and simple solution is to eliminate the suspect food for at least a week, or preferably two.

If your baby’s sleep patterns improve, you can either be thankful and avoid the suspect food, or you can try reintroducing a small amount of the food into your diet. Then, if the night-waking re-occurs, you can be pretty sure you’ve nailed the culprit.

Elimination of foods may take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to make a difference to your baby’s behaviour, so food sensitivities are difficult to prove or disprove. But many mums think that it if calms their baby (and them!), modifying their diet is a small sacrifice.

Of course, sleep will sometimes be elusive without major dietary changes, but in other cases it will just be a matter of balance, perhaps taking care not to overload on certain foods that seem to affect your child.

A good guide to sensible eating, and to hopefully having a restful sleep, is to include a wide variety of foods in as close to their natural state as possible. This means plenty of fresh vegetables, whole grains, fish, meats and free-range eggs, and plain milk or water, while trying to avoid frozen chicken nuggets, snack bars, coloured yoghurts and juice boxes.

If you find the thought of changing your diet overwhelming, seek help from an appropriate professional such as a dietitian. It could certainly be worth your time – and think of the energy you’ll have once you get more sleep! 

Pinky McKay is an internationally certified lactation and best-selling author of Sleeping Like a Baby, Parenting By Heart and 100 Ways to Calm the Crying. Check out Pinky’s baby sleep seminars at pinkymckay.com.