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How to create healthy sleep habits

Sleep. Until you have to do without it, you don’t realise how good it is.

If your child isn’t a great sleeper, you can go years and years without a decent night’s sleep.

For the parents, this can get frustrating and pretty taxing, emotionally and physically.

It isn’t doing the child any favours either.  Lack of sleep can lead to symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as the child tries stay focussed.

There are lots of issues than can disrupt sleep and you can read about them here.

The amount of sleep a child needs will vary, depending on their level of activity, their age, and their individuality.  For a primary school age child, they are going to need between 10 and 12 hours per day.  A good way to know if your child is getting enough quality and quantity of sleep is their demeanour in the morning.  If you have to wake them every day, and drag them out of bed, or they are very cranky, chances are they need more or better quality sleep.

Sleep hygiene refers to all the habits around sleep and bedtime, and this is the best place to start to improve your child’s sleep

First up, have a think about how much exercise, preferably outdoor, your child is getting.  Kids need about 1 hour of exercise, through the day, not just before bedtime.  This is highly variable however.  Two of my kids fall asleep at the same time very night, it doesn’t matter if they have done nothing all day.  The other child needs to have lots and lot of running around, or she struggles to get to sleep.  Most parents I meet also need a bit more movement in their lives, so get out and get active with your kids for an hour a day.  Everyone will benefit.

Screens wreak havoc with bedtime.  They make it extremely hard for kids to fall asleep.  And, again, some kids will not be affected.  Generally speaking, cut out screens for at least 2 hours before bed. So no TV or iPad after dinner.  Instead, read books, do a puzzle, or just play.  Of course, this also means that parents can’t be on their devices in the time between dinner and bed.

Chamomile tea is a lovely soothing bedtime drink.  Some children like it, and like the ritual of having a cup of tea like mum.  If it is too bitter, add a touch of honey, but try to get your child used to bitter flavours as they have lots of benefits for gut health.

Kids thrive on routine (although not all parents do!).  Have a predictable routine every day, which starts at the same time.  We accidently got into the habit of setting an alarm at 7pm when it is time to brush teeth (the alarm was actually to remind me to switch over my milk kefir, but it became the bedtime alarm!).

Be firm, but kind.  Anxious children may need a parent to lie with them.  As long as it is for a reasonable length of time (like 5-15 minutes), this is fine.  If it is for 3 hours, it probably isn’t fine.

In my online course “Create Cool, Calm and Cooperative kids”, I take parents through a bedroom audit to see how their environment is affecting their child’s sleep, as there are lots of factors which disrupt sleep, but are really easily fixed.

Foods that help with sleep include:

Walnuts

These contain an amino acid called tryptophan.  The body uses tryptophan to make two neurotransmitters called melatonin and serotonin which help with sleep.  These lovely brain-shaped nuts also contain small amounts of melatonin itself.

Almonds

Almonds are a good source of magnesium.  Magnesium is a mineral that a lot of people are deficient in.  It is very calming, and helps your muscles relax, so definitely good for sleep

Green leafy vegetables

These provide calcium to the body, which the body also needs to help make melatonin, which helps us sleep.

Seafood

I always noticed when my kids were babies that they slept much better on the nights they had fish for dinner.  Seafood is a really good protein source, including the amino acid tryptophan.

Tart cherries

These contain melatonin and help kids get to sleep, but the catch is in the name.  Tart cherries are tart!  You can buy tart cherry juice, but not many kids would drink it.  I have made it into ice blocks, and it definitely works, but giving a child juice every night is not ideal (but better than medication!).

Wholegrains

These can be helpful, but again they have to be whole grains.  If your child has problems sleeping, you could give them a small bowl of porridge made with milk before bed.  The oats need to be rolled oats, not quick oats.  The carbohydrates from the oats and the calcium from the milk will help.

Boiled egg

This is a traditional way to help with sleep, the protein keeps your child’s tummy full overnight.  This will help your child get to sleep and stay asleep.

What about foods to avoid before bed?

Caffeine

There is caffeine in chocolate, so it your child has a Freddo before bed, switch it for something else, like some natural yoghurt, or a small piece or cheese.

Sugar

Ice cream after dinner is a big no-no.  The sugar will have them wired at exactly the same time they should be winding down.

Doing a food allergy test can be a really good short-cut to improving sleep.  You can book one here.

If your child has issues with behaviour or sleep, I highly recommend doing my online course “Create Cool, Calm and Cooperative kids”.  In this I guide parents on a 6 week journey to improve a child’s mood through food.  There are lots of recipes, coaching videos, a closed Facebook group for extra support and handouts.  Start your journey today!

When sleep training doesn’t work

Sleep issues are one of the frequent issues I see in clinic.

Having a child who can’t sleep steals parents of their ‘grown-up time’ in the evening, and leads to cranky children in the morning.

Parents will frequently spend thousands of dollars on sleep trainers.  This will certainly help with some behavioural issues.  But if the issue is biochemical, all the sleep training in the world won’t help, and will just lead to a lot of stress for parents and child.

The next thing that people might do is a sleep study.  This is where you go to a centre for a night, and your child is wired up to a machine to monitor their body as they sleep.  This can diagnose issues such a sleep apnoea or periodic leg movement disorder.

Having this information can be interesting, and you get a firm diagnosis, but it does little to solve the problem.

Getting to the root cause of the sleep issues will help the child’s sleep, but will probably also help in other areas of their life to, as poor sleep is just another symptom.

What does sleep do to your body?

Sleep is very important for adults and children alike.

When we sleep our body has a chance to restore and heal itself, on a physical and emotional level.

Bodily processes like metabolism and detoxification are regulated by sleep.

Our immune system is bolstered by sleep.

Growth occurs during sleep.

Learning and memory are consolidated by sleep.

When should babies sleep longer at night?

With newborns, sleep can be erratic, but by 4-6 months a regular sleep-wake cycle should have emerged.  In an ideal world, 6-8 month old babies should be sleep close to 12 hours at night, without a break.

If this isn’t happening then there are a few areas to trouble shoot.

Why won’t my baby sleep through the night?

  • Nutritional deficiencies. Especially if baby was a premmie, they could be deficient in some nutrients which are affecting sleep, such as zinc or magnesium
  • They could have food sensitivities which are irritating them, either through the foods they eat, or what the mum eats if breastfed.
  • They might have too much sugar in their diet (even through fruit)
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke can have a big impact on sleep
  • Babies thrive on routine, and if there isn’t a routine, this could disrupt their sleep
  • Some babies will still be suffering from colic at this age. There are probiotics which are scientifically proven to help with colic.
  • Poor gut health – not enough good bacteria can effect sleep. Perhaps due to taking antibiotics, or reflux medication.
  • After-effects of birth trauma can lead to residual sleep issues.

Sometimes the easiest thing to do at this point is give them a dummy, but this can be counterproductive.

Dummies can lead to poor growth of the tongue and palate, which causes mouth breathing, snoring, sleep apnoea and tonsillitis.  The sucking action of breastfeeding however produces a better shaped palate.

Will my child ever sleep?

Once children are at primary school you would hope that sleeping would be a ‘dream’ however this is definitely not the case!

Lots of sleep disorders can present at this age.

I talk about some of the more common ones below, and how natural therapies can help with them.

Bed wetting. 

This is a common issue with children.  It can be related to stress, anxiety, constipation, sleep apnoea or enlarged tonsils.  Sitting on an adult toilet means that children can’t completely relax their pelvic floor muscles, which can lead to constipation and urinary tract infections, which lead to bedwetting.

It is also caused by neurotransmitter imbalance (see below).

Bruxism (teeth grinding).

If you child wakes with a headache or sore jaw, they may be grinding their teeth.  Your dentist will also be able to tell you if it is happening, as it damages their teeth.

And if you co-sleep, you will be able to hear it too.

Things to consider for teeth grinding are intestinal parasites, nutritional deficiencies, anxiety, neurotransmitter imbalance (see below) and allergies.

Nightmares. 

These will happen in 10-50% of children.

They usually happen in the second half of the night.  The child will remember it, and be too scared to go back to sleep.

Addressing stress and anxiety and giving some supplements can help.

Night terrors.

These are different to nightmares.  They usually happen early in the night.  The child will be crying or screaming, and be inconsolable.  It is awful to watch, but the child will not remember it.

Supplements to calm the nervous system can help, as will some gentle liver detoxification.

Obstructive sleep apnoea.

There may be some obvious signs this is happening, such as sleeping in an unusual position, and sweating a lot during the night.

The child will be unsettled and wake up a lot.

They may wet the bed, have nightmares or night terrors and chronic runny noses or ear infections.

During the day they will be inattentive and drowsy at school.  This can lead to hyperactivity, irritability and aggressiveness.

Some children who snore will have sleep apnoea, but not all of them.

If your child snores, you should consider that their airway is being narrowed.

The reasons why the airway might be narrowed include enlarged tonsils, allergies and obesity.

Sleep apnoea can also lead to obesity as the child tries to get energy from food that they should be getting from sleep.

Restless legs or periodic limb movement disorder in sleep.

Children with ADHD are more likely to suffer from this.

It can also be due to an iron deficiency, which you need to have a blood test for.  Supplementing with iron is not a good idea unless you know how much the child has to start off with.

Exercising during the day can help some people, as can a foot massage or meditation before bed.

Nutrients such as magnesium and a low sugar diet will help.

Difficulty getting to sleep (initiating sleep).

This is the problem I see most, at home, and with clients.

There are lots of sleep hygiene practices which you can do first to help with this.  These include:

  • Taking all electrical equipment out of the bedroom, and checking what is on the other side of the wall also.
  • Having a good bedtime routine, at a set time
  • Getting up at the same time every day

Once these basics are in place, it is time to think about ways to establish a proper circadian rhythm, and look at neurotransmitter balance

Neurotransmitters and circadian rhythm

Circadian rhythm is your body’s internal body clock, which tells you when it is time to go to bed at night, and get up in the morning.

Melatonin is a hormone which is important for your circadian rhythm and is made from the neurotransmitter serotonin.

So you need to have enough serotonin, and a good supply of the vitamins and minerals to convert serotonin to melatonin.  Taking a melatonin supplement just takes a steam roller over the body’s natural biochemical process, and jumps right to the last step.  It is better to get all the neurotransmitters and vitamins correct, so your body can make its own melatonin.

Too much light will disrupt circadian rhythm and sleep.  Ipads, TV, night lights can all cause problems for kids sleep.  Dimming the lights in the evening and turning off devices will help with sleep initiation.

Other neurotransmitters can also be out of balance, and have an effect on sleep

What does gut health have to do with sleep?

There are several ways that gut health can effect sleep.

There is two way communication between the gut and the brain.  That is why gut health is linked to anxiety, ADHD and autism.  These three conditions can impact sleep.  So improving gut health will improve sleep in people with these conditions.

For people without anxiety, ADHD or autism, the gut brain connection will still be important.  Having healthy bacteria in your gut will mean a better night’s sleep.

Having an irritated gut lining will cause abdominal pain, which will impact sleep quality.

Gut microbes also help us to make serotonin, which is needed to make melatonin.

Poor gut health makes it more likely that candida infection can take over.  Candida effects the kidneys, which disrupts sleep.  It produces acetaldehyde which can cause sleep disturbances.  It causes inflammation which can cause sleep apnoea.

How can a nutritionist help with sleep?

Food intolerances and allergies have a big impact on sleep.  They can cause enlarged tonsils and therefore sleep apnoea.  They also cause general irritation and inflammation, making falling asleep harder.  Bed wetting is also made worse by food intolerances, which leads to a disrupted sleep.  Food intolerances can be tested by a Nutritionist

There is a urine test (Organic Acids Test) which shows levels of neurotransmitters your child is producing and some nutritional deficiencies.  If these neurotransmitters are out of balance, sleep will be affected.

For instance, low levels of serotonin will lead to insomnia.

Eating foods high in tryptophan such as turkey and bananas will bolster serotonin, as will taking a supplement.

This urine test helps pin-point exactly what neurotransmitter is out of balance, so you can target it specifically.

Heavy metal toxicity testing is done through hair analysis.

Heavy metal toxicity will lead to poor sleep quality, and can be addressed though food and supplementation.

You can also test for hormones directly such as melatonin, but these are influenced by neurotransmitters, so you are best to start there.

If your child’s sleep problems are stealing your evenings, get in touch with me for a free 20 min chat to discuss if I might be able to help!

Sleep – a precious commodity!

Our family has been struggling with getting one of children to sleep for the last 5 years.  As a baby she slept, well, like a baby.  But once she hit toddlerhood, bedtimes became seriously derailed.  We would spend hours trying to get her to sleep – the stories, the cuddles, sitting with her, leaving her to cry.  We tried it all.  Like a jack in the box she would got out of bed over and over again, until she collapsed at about 9.30pm.  Then every night, she would end up in our bed as she would wake in the night from her light sleep.

Starting school escalated the situation.  Morning tantrums became a regular occurrence.  She was so tired and didn’t want to get up. It was particularly disturbing that she was getting upset about her inability to sleep. She would ask why her siblings could just get into bed and fall asleep and she couldn’t.

We eat a really healthy diet, so we couldn’t look at reduced sugar or additives.  I had to think more broadly.

Our fortunes changes when we did Bio-compatability hair analysis for her.  This gave us a list of about 8 foods which her body was not dealing well with.  We easily eliminated these foods, without having to remove any food groups entirely.  We haven’t looked back.  Now she goes to bed easily every single night, and stays in her bed until she wakes refreshed at 6.30am.  This is life changing for us, we actually get our evenings back.  This has had a dramatic effect on her school work and she has made huge improvements in a very short space of time.

The test is totally non-invasive.  Grab the scissors and cut off a few locks of hair, that’s it.  No blood tests, no skin pricks, no scratch tests.

If you or your family suffer from headaches, skin conditions, ADHD, asthma, behavioural issues or sleep disturbances, book in for an initial appointment with me.  We can go through your health history and decide if this test is right for you.