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Diet and Sleep: They're Connected

Regardless of age, when and what we eat can affect how much rest we get.

If a night of restful sleep often eludes you or your child, it might be time to reflect on the connection between your eating and sleeping patterns.

Problems can start early. Some diet-sleep issues begin in infancy when, “feeding to get the baby to sleep is first tried, and then backfires” because the baby learns to associate sleep with eating, says Jodi Mindell, PhD, associate director of the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She says an infant will awaken between two and six times a night, regardless of whether you feed him before bedtime. “Whatever you do at bedtime, you should be prepared to do again at 1am and 3am,” she advises.

We need routines. Regular family eating and sleeping schedules and rituals set up healthy long-term habits for our children. A problematic pattern can be established if an infant naps many times during the course of the day, eats only small portions before dozing off and does not experience periods of being fully awake and deeply asleep. Once poor feeding and sleeping become linked, these behaviors get connected and can continue for toddlers, teens and even adults

Sleep and diet are connected. It has already been documented that inadequate sleep is associated with obesity in toddlers and early school age children,” says Sandra Hassink, MD, director of the Weight Management Clinic at the Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE. When children not only lack appropriate nutrition, but also don’t get adequate rest, they are at risk for obesity, diabetes and many other problems.

A Side Benefit

As family habits begin to change, structure is created, often benefitting an overweight child through healthier diet and better-regulated sleep habits as well.

With important changes such as predictable dinnertime, snack time and bedtime at an appropriate hour, the extra benefit of having the family together at dinnertime often results.

Kids who eat a regular meal with their parents tend to do better in school, have fewer behavioral problems and have healthier eating habits.

Change one thing at a time. “It’s too overwhelming to try to look at and change everything at once,” Dr. Hassink stressed. “You have to move towards change, and start with one healthy routine. A good place to start with many busy families is with getting rid of sugared drinks, cutting down on fast foods and eating meals at home, since eating out usually means high calorie dense foods.

“Since any individual’s or family’s habits and patterns become deeply ingrained over time, the goal is finding the motivation and treatment for a particular situation rather than desperate attempts at a one-size-fits-all solution,” she says.

Don’t overlook side-issues. “It’s important to look at the amount of caffeine a child over the age of five is getting,” advises Dr. Mindell. “You’d be surprised how often things with chocolate, iced tea, or energy drinks are consumed, and these highly caffeinated and sugary drinks found lurking somewhere in the picture are responsible in part for children’s inability to settle down and get to sleep.” Dr. Mindell also cites inappropriately late bedtimes and use of electronics before bedtime as contributors to poor sleep.

Here’s the experts’ prescription. All family members are likely to sleep better with predictable mealtimes and a nightly bedtime routine that culminates in an age-appropriate amount of sleep. Cut down or eliminate caffeine, eat moderate meals at set times, wind down at night but not at a screen and exercise regularly, but not right before bed.

Sleep-Weight No-Nos for Adults

For Mom and Dad, “using alcohol to help you sleep is actually a no-no,” says Angel Rodis, MD, the medical director of Virtua’s Marlton and Voorhees Sleep Centers in South Jersey. “At first, alcohol acts as a sedative for people hoping to unwind, but the person usually just winds up waking up a couple of hours later anyway,” he says.

Caffeine in parents’ coffee, sodas, iced tea and energy drinks “does exactly what it’s supposed to — it keeps them up, especially late at night,” says Dr. Rodis. “Also, people don’t connect tea and chocolate, which both have caffeine and should be avoided at dinnertime. If you suffer from insomnia, have no caffeine after lunch.”

Eating late in the evening also can impede sleep. “As a general rule, you should have nothing in your stomach at least four hours before going to sleep so your stomach will be empty when lying in bed,” says Dr. Rodis. Sleep difficulties can occur “especially when a person skips breakfast, eats a light lunch, and then enjoys a hearty feast at dinnertime or late in the evening.” Problems can ensue “as the body tries to deal with all those calories ingested late in the day, when silent symptoms like heartburn and reflux occur following late night snacks or dinner.”

Lori Samlin Miller is a local freelance writer.

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