Food and Its Affect on Sleep

Babies begin life being completely sustained on breast milk or infant formula. Midway through their first year, they begin solids and at this time, they slowly begin to wean from milk and begin to satisfy their hunger and thirst in the same way that adults do. Nutrition has a direct link to sleep in babies and small children, and it all comes down to the physical size of a baby’s stomach, ensuring particular types of nutrients are included in babies’ diets and being aware of their affect at the particular time that they are ingested.


At birth, newborn babies’ stomachs are the size of a marble and they empty quickly. This has a direct correlation to how long a newborn baby can sleep for. They wake when they are hungry. This is why newborns generally need to be fed every 2-4 hours around the clock.

If a newborn is not getting enough milk, they will be unsettled and wake more frequently or they are intolerant to some aspect of their milk. Common issues that affect sleep are cows milk protein allergies and egg or nut allergies or intolerances. Low weight gain is a red flag that baby is not getting enough milk. If you suspect a breastfeeding problem, please see an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant – they are experts in breastfeeding problems (

Please be aware, if a baby is exclusively breastfed, formula will not usually help them get a better night’s sleep. In fact, it can often make sleep worse, because their bodies are not used to it and it can give them a sore tummy. Cluster feeding is normal at this age, and lots of babies will feed frequently in the evening. This helps them to settle into longer stretches of sleep overnight. When baby reaches 4kg, most will need 2 feeds overnight. At this age, all feeds need to be awake, as newborns don’t feed well when they’re asleep.

3-6 months

As babies grow, so does their stomach size. When they can hold more milk in their stomachs, they can stay full for longer. This helps them to begin to sleep for longer stretches. Breastfed babies who previously would have only one side start to need both at this age. I commonly see babies begin to wake more frequently here and mum is so tired that she hasn’t thought to offer both sides!

A dream feed can be introduced around 4 months old, as your baby is now able to feed effectively whilst sleeping. The dream feed needs to stop by 7 months as interferes with sleep cycles and encourages baby to wake. Formula fed babies should be able to sleep through just with this dream feed by 4 months. Breastfed babies still may need one extra night feed until around 5 or 6 months – but this varies from baby to baby.

Most Babies can get through the night on 1- 2 feeds. Feeding them too much causes their body to wake up because one of the elements that influences their circadian rhythm is food. More milk does not equal more sleep, however it is normal for baby to wake for an extra feed for a few nights if they are having a growth spurt.

If your health care provider recommends solids, remember that milk should always be given before solids at this age, as baby won’t get the calories they need from food and this will disrupt baby’s sleep. Go slowly with introducing solids, as too much can give baby a sore tummy and affect their sleep. Foods like pumpkin, pear or peach should be introduced at this stage, as they are gentle on the tummy.

6-12 months

Currently, it is recommended that babies start solids at 6 months of age. If solids are delayed at this age, sleep may be affected. Too little solids at this age will mean your baby needs a night feed for longer.

The order that meals are introduced is important too as milk is still very important at this age. Introduce either lunch or dinner first and breakfast last (around 7/8 months). If you are worried about food affecting night sleep, introduce new foods at lunchtime to give them long enough to digest. At 8 months, food can be given before milk, and it is great to start the day with breakfast instead of milk at this age, as it discourages early wake ups.

It is now that nutrients from food start to affect baby’s sleep. Macro-nutrients like carbohydrates and protein are essential. Carbohydrates prevent baby from having low blood sugar, which causes the release of adrenaline and interrupts sleep. If protein is given at lunchtime, it will help baby to sleep through the night because it takes a long time to digest.

Important minerals are iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. Iron is found in red meat, green leafy vegetables, beans and iron fortified cereals. Iron is important because it is involved in developing the part of the brain that allows baby to fall asleep and stay asleep. Zinc affects muscle and nerve relaxation and is found in red meat, seafood, spinach, seeds and cashews. Calcium is a muscle relaxant and it calms the central nervous system. Calcium can be found in dairy products, tinned salmon or sardines, green leafy vegetables or almonds. Magnesium is also a muscle relaxant, and this nutrient is dependent on calcium and zinc supplies. Magnesium can be found in green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, whole grains, avocado and bananas.

By 9 months, we know that baby is definitely not waking at night because they’re hungry. Formula fed babies will generally be able to sleep through at around 6 months and breastfed by 6-9 months. If your baby is still waking at night after 9 months, there is another reason for the waking that needs to be explored.

12 months +

Growth slows significantly at 12 months. Often children begin to eat less and this causes parents to worry. The toddler actually needs less food. Milk intake should taper off at this stage – baby needs only 2-3 feeds. Be careful not to give them too much milk, as it will make them eat even less and will significantly impact on your child’s nutrient intake. Fussy eating can cause low iron and other minerals. This affects falling asleep and staying asleep. If your toddler is a fussy eater and it is affecting their sleep, see your GP to check iron levels. You should ask your GP for a referral to see a dietitian, as they will be able to help you with strategies to address fussy eating habits. If nutrients are a problem, a naturopath can help with high-quality children’s supplements.

Food has a significant role to play in how your child sleeps, and as you can see, this is a very complex interaction. Food is still only one piece of the puzzle and there are many other aspects to why your child may not be sleeping well. If your child is not eating well and this article has raised some red flags for you, please do not hesitate to see your GP.

About the Author

Jade is a Certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant and a mum to two beautiful children. There is no question about sleep that she can’t answer. All of her advice is backed up by scientific research.

She has worked with babies and young children for her entire adult life, and Jade is certainly passionate about helping children get the most out of their lives from the start. She believes sleep is a cornerstone of development, and without adequate sleep, children are unable to reach their full potential. It is exciting that she is able help each and every family achieve this.