Food for Thought: How to Handle Sleep Challenges as a New Parent

You may or may not have noticed this, but there are a lot of new families at UB.  With that in mind, here is a Whole9 guest post from a mother-daughter duo who are passionate about prenatal nutrition. Emily Rydbom CN, LE and Dr. Leslie Stone are founders of  GrowBaby®. Read their other Whole9 guest posts here.

It’s an all-too-familiar picture, a tip-toeing parent, holding their breath, willing their child to sleep. The pattern never stops, the child doesn’t sleep, so the parents don’t either. I have to admit, my mother was the one who cheerfully mentioned, “Oh, yes, well as a new mother I didn’t feel normal until you were all 4 years old.” Four! No thanks. I vowed then that I would work toward creating a healthy sleep environment for myself and my son. We both had to survive this and my heart was set on it. I imagine many mothers and fathers have the same grandiose idea of training their child to sleep, but then life happens and they have to adjust. So, in the spirit of adjustment, and sanity, here is GrowBaby’s approach to helping parents work through their sleep challenges.

The recommendations below are for babies over 18 lbs who do not have autism spectrum disorder. In the case of any spectrum disorder, there are more than likely multiple specialists included in their care. Please address the individual needs of the child with all who are involved.

Scenario #1: A child who doesn’t have sleep hygiene mastered

You’ve tried it all; sleep routines, playtime outside, diet changes, and nothing helps. This is where questions arise for us regarding specifics surrounding poor sleep and diet change. In order to make the inhibitory neurotransmitter serotonin and the co-factor to make melatonin (which helps you sleep) you need B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, L-tryptophan, and balanced gut health. Why? The largest site of serotonin production happens in your gut, not your brain.

Improve Serotonin Production

You can help to improve serotonin production in your child by addressing their gut health using the 5R approach.¹

  1. Remove the most commonly problematic foods like wheat, eggs, dairy, soy, shellfish, corn, and refined sugar.
  2. Replace with naturally occurring digestive enzymes found in fruits like papaya and pineapple, as well as mangoes, watermelon, blueberries, raspberries, and grapefruit, or vegetables like parsley, kale, broccoli, celery, cabbage, beets, and beet greens.²
  3. Reinoculate with healthy bacteria by choosing fermented foods daily, like yogurt and kefir (if tolerated), bone broth, natto (avoid if Paleo), sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso (avoid if Paleo).
  4. Repair by choosing nutrients that support gut health like L-glutamine (a non-essential amino acid). You’ll find this in cabbage, beets, beef, chicken, and fish. Butyric Acid (made from fermented fiber in your large intestine) also supports gut health and comes from vegetables, fruit, and butter. Omega-3 fatty acids (essential fats) are found in seafood, flaxseeds, chia seeds, algal oil, walnuts, and almonds.
  5. Rebalance stress by making sleep learning as much about your child as it is about you. Involve your child, and ask them to choose what relaxes and calms them. It is about observation, but also inquiry. You may be older and wiser, but asking their opinion about what is working will continue to encourage healthy communication. Most babies calm with the quiet humming or soothing tones of their parent’s voice, feeling the beat of the parent’s heartbeat with contact of the chest. When you feel appreciation and gratitude for someone (like your baby) and are close (within 2-4 feet) your heartbeat and their heartbeat will begin to synchronize. So quiet appreciation and gratitude with closeness can calm your child.
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Address Protein, Vitamin & Mineral Intake

Protein, vitamin, and mineral intake impact your child’s sleep and by addressing this, you may improve sleep for your child.

L-Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is a key component of melatonin, which is critical for restorative sleep. Vitamin B6, folate (vitamin B9), vitamin C, and the mineral magnesium work to convert L-tryptophan into melatonin. However, overemphasizing specific nutrients can lead you to overlook other important complementary nutrients.

In this case, L-tryptophan needs help from specific nutrients. Choose foods that are high in B vitamins like dark leafy greens, brewer’s yeast, squashes, cruciferous vegetables, bell peppers, and protein. Choose foods that are high in vitamin C like citrus, bell peppers, romaine lettuce, pineapple, melon, strawberries, and kiwi. And finally, choose foods that are high in magnesium. This not only improves cellular energy, but encourages relaxation. Some magnesium-rich foods include: spinach, squashes, sesame/flax/pumpkin/sunflower seeds, cruciferous veggies, and green beans.

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Scenario #2: Parental fear of sleep learning/sleep hygiene

The first thing that we need to address with all parents is this: stress is a crucial part of life. Focus should be on allowing your children to experience positive stress response (brief and intermittent and mild-moderate in magnitude) vs. toxic stress response, (strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship).³ Helping your child learn how to sleep is a positive stress response and one that has a lifelong impact for their sleep hygiene. It also allows their natural stress response to occur.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says this: “when buffered by an environment of stable and supportive relationships, positive stress responses are a growth-promoting element of normal development. As such, they provide important opportunities to observe, learn, and practice healthy, adaptive responses to adverse experiences.”

Some parents choose to co-sleep with their child or cry-it-out method with their child. It is not our job to judge which methods of sleep training are the right ones for you and your child, and we want to move past the quick judgments that all parents can make, and put the stress of sleep learning in context. What can you do to support and respect your child as they learn to sleep through a positive-not a toxic – experience?

Instead of listing out ways to teach your child to sleep, our encouragement is this: you will not ruin your child. Stress and crying is not always accompanied by increased cortisol⁴, especially when paired with the comfort that you bring as a parent. That means that the transition that you make with your child from co-sleeping or crying it out to independent sleeping will bring challenges; however, it will not bring lifelong damage. Remember that you are providing a safe opportunity to let your child experience stress in a healthy way – tears and all.

Scenario #3: A child who sleeps, but a parent who doesn’t

Despite your best effort to trust that all is well with your sleeping child, there may still be some worry in the back of your mind. This is such a common problem for parents. The adrenal (stress) response that results from worrying and stress can sabotage good sleep. “I slept fine until my baby was born and now I have insomnia. I can get to sleep, but I can’t stay asleep.”

This is the classic “tired but wired” phenomenon. How do you solve it? After all your hard work to get your child to sleep, it’s time for you to relearn to sleep. You come by insomnia honestly. After only 10 minutes of stress, your gut barrier can be compromised, leaving you susceptible to immune suppression and low serotonin production. (The more severe the stress the more stress hormones affect your intestinal environment, and the harder it is to maintain healthy bacterial balance and gut integrity).

Colicky babies have altered bacteria in their gut – an imbalanced system. Just like we addressed foods to improve gut health for your child, we encourage you to do the same for yourself. Addressing your B vitamin intake, vitamin C, magnesium, and L-tryptophan intake will improve your sleep as well, helping you to stay in a deep slumber.

There are certain foods that help you make inhibitory neurotransmitters. Choose foods that help you make serotonin and GABA (made from glutamic acid), whose primary roles are to reduce excitatory neurotransmitters (like dopamine) from over-stimulating your body. We’ve covered tryptophan-rich foods, but foods that supply precursors for GABA are abundant in a healthy diet as well. Some foods rich in glutamic acid include tomatoes, almonds, walnuts, and animal protein sources.

Why is it not important to emphasize GABA precursors for children? Because in the mature brain, GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, but in the developing brain it is an excitatory neurotransmitter.5  This does not mean avoid all rich foods for your child, but it does mean, pay close attention to dinner and pre-sleep snack choices.

Herbal therapies have known associations with the promotion of sleep. We suggest implementing herbs into your sleep hygiene, as long as you are not breastfeeding. If you are interested in using herbs while breastfeeding, check with your healthcare provider. The following are the herbs most commonly known to promote sleep and decrease anxiety: hops, lavender, chamomile, lemon balm, motherwort, passion flower, kava kava, skullcap, and valerian root.6  You can find individual or combinations of these herbs in teas that are praised for sleep promotion.

We don’t want parents to expect utter sleep deprivation with each new family member. With consistency and balance, you will be able to find the right answer for you and your family.

Remember that sleep is a nutrient. We have to choose and nourish it, just like we choose and gain nourishment from whole, real, and healthy food. Be willing to adjust and then be consistent. You will find what is right for your child.