Diet, Exercise and Sleep

Following on from last week’s blog about Exercise for Children, this week we look at how exercise, diet and sleep work together to promote a healthy child.

As I said last week, exercise has many benefits for children and adults. Keeping active with a healthy balanced diet can greatly impact positively on children’s sleep.

A child reaches for some strawberries on a counter top
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

If they have too little physical exercise, your child may not be tired enough to go to sleep at the end of the day.  However, we also need to be mindful of exercising too close to bedtime. This is particularly relevant for children who are engaged in after school sports activities. It is important for your child to have some wind down time with a healthy snack, drink, and some quiet activity, preferably with a parent before starting their bedtime routine. It is very easy to come home late in the afternoon and go straight into the bedtime routine. Try and avoid this, even if it means on after school activity days your child has a slightly later bedtime.

Sleep deprivation can also affect eating habits and can be a factor in weight gain. This happens because of a hormone called Ghrelin (also known as the hunger hormone) which can be raised with sleep deprivation. Also, children who are up later are more resistant to bed and often say they are hungry as a way to delay bedtime. Alternatively, on waking in the night children may say they are hungry, even though they are probably not! As parents, you can become concerned your child is hungry, so an extra snack creeps in! (This doesn’t apply to babies who still need night feeds)

We need to ensure children are not hungry or thirsty or too full before going to bed as this leads to disrupted sleep and early waking.

Many people think that once their baby reaches the age of 6 months, and has started their weaning journey, that they should be sleeping for longer stretches. Remember that at the start of weaning, they won’t be taking many calories in (as most of the food goes round the mouth or on the floor!) Over the following months your baby will start taking in more solids until they are having three meals a day and two or three snacks. Around the age of 9 months, there is an increase in solids and a slight decrease in milk.

A child eats a cookie
Photo by Jimmy Dean on Unsplash

You may feel your baby is ready to sleep through, but don’t rush this. It is completely normal for babies to still need one night feed until they are a year old. If your baby wakes because of hunger, there is no point in trying to resettle them back to sleep as, like adults, if you are that hungry you will find it really difficult to sleep.

By 12 months old, many babies should be able to drop night feeds, but bear in mind if you have a petite or premature baby it may take longer to get to this stage.

Where possible, try to have meals at the same time each day. If your child attends day care on more days than they are at home, I recommend you try to work to the day care’s mealtimes. If your child is home the majority of the time, follow your own routine. Having consistent mealtimes influences the internal body clock (the circadian rhythm) so our body knows when mealtimes are coming.

It is very important for children to be introduced to a healthy diet as early as possible. Try to avoid ‘baby marketed’ foods as they are not as nutritional as fresh and non-processed foods. They also have high sugar content which is why babies/children love the fruit pouches/baby crisps. Obviously, there are times they are handy to have, if you are out and about, but try to keep their use to a minimum.

Physical activity guidelines

  • Primary school age and older children should engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity 60 minutes per day and long periods of inactivity should be avoided.
  • Pre-schoolers (3-4 years) should have a minimum of 180 minutes per day, including 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise.
  • Toddlers (1-2 years) should have a minimum of 180 minutes per day, spread throughout the day.
  • Infants (less than 1 year) should be physically active several times per day (as appropriate for their development) and 30 minutes of tummy time spread throughout the day.
Physical exercise
Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash

If your child does struggle with their sleep, review how much exercise they are getting and whether they are getting enough. Outdoors activity is highly beneficial as it meets the child’s exercise needs and helps them to be tired at the end of the day as well as supporting the functions of their body clock. Being outside for at least 30 minutes in the mid-late afternoon increases Melatonin (the sleep hormone). In the morning, try to get your child outside for at least 30 minutes within the first 90 minutes of waking.

More help

For more help with your child’s sleep rhythms and how exercise, sleep and diet work together, please contact Julie to see how she can help.