Can Babies Have Meat and Protein at Night?
Navigating a myriad of advice when it comes to starting solids and baby feeding is par for the parenting course. One topic that frequently raises questions is whether it's okay for babies to have meat and protein at night.
Contrary to some common beliefs and advice generally given by those with very little nutritional (or tertiary level) qualifications - incorporating protein at dinner time is not only essential but can have positive effects on their sleep.
Where Is Your advice Coming From?
Before I launch into the science of protein and the importance of this essential macro-nutrient I want to open up the conversation on where your starting solids advice is coming from here. The reason this aspect of starting solids is hot topic is wrapped into sleep. I know first hand that parents will do anything to improve their babies sleep. I am also the first to advocate for getting help with sleep, including from paid services. However, I do caution around the advice given on starting solids from sleep consultants. This is because they are not trained in infant nutrition, or if they are it is very limited often not with any formal qualification let alone a tertiary level qualification. Moreover, they do have an invested interest here – that is – finding a “reason” as to why a baby is not sleeping. Blaming a certain food can be an easier solution than guiding an infant to join sleep cycles and to figure out the parenting style that best suits a family to do this.
While sleep consultants are often coming from a good place this can do more damage. This is because parents are already dealing with a huge volume of confusing and conflicting advice around starting solids (and sleep). Never (like never, ever) in research will we draw lines of causation. What this means is that we will never say x causes y. In this case “protein at night is causing your baby to wake up” or ANY food for that matter – because we simply do not know. There may be associations or some foods that are more likely to impact. However this is quite different to “cause”. So watch for this!
In addition, in research, there would never be one variable or one isolated observation used. To explain in this context, if a baby has steak at night (on a singular night) and then wakes up a few times – saying it is the steak after only one night…..again is simply not possible to know and nor should even an association be assumed after only one night.
Again, I know that you are desperate to get some sleep and please do get help with this but just question the validity of starting solids advice from someone who does not have extensive training and experience here.
Right, rant over, back to the science.
Importance of Protein:
Protein is one of our three essential macro-nutrients. These are carbohydrate, fat as well as protein. Protein is a crucial building block for the body. It aids in the development of muscles, tissues, and organs. For babies, who experience rapid growth and development (more in their first year of life than any other year), ensuring an adequate intake of protein is vital.
Given it is one of three essential macro-nutrients – essential meaning our bodies cannot make it….why would this be restricted at one of our three main opportunities to eat?!
Meat vs Protein
Just to clarify here, this blog is going to discuss protein at night. The reason why meat is often discussed is because the major macro-nutrients in meat is protein….however if babies “have a problem with meat” (they do not just for the record) then they would also have a problem with other sources of protein as many have similar or the same amino acids.
Night Growth and Repair:
Night is a period of rest, but it's also a time when the body undergoes significant growth and repair processes. During sleep, the body releases growth hormone, which plays a key role in muscle and bone development. Providing a source of protein before bedtime actually ensures that the body has the necessary building blocks to support these crucial nocturnal processes.
Melatonin is a hormone primarily produced by the pineal gland in the middle part of the brain. This hormone stimulates our sleep processes at night. Hormones need nutrients to support them and help them release. Iron and protein also play an essential role in the release of melatonin, which starts in the late afternoon.
So in short, it is more likely that there is an opposite association in that infants who do not get adequate opportunities for iron and protein (most protein sources are high in iron), especially at night time, may have their circadian rhythm less supported for sleep.
Can Babies Digest Protein?
One of the common reasons protein is suggested to be ‘causing’ babies to wake is that they cannot break it down or have trouble breaking down protein. Given it is a major macro-nutrient….why would our bodies not be able to break this down? Why would babies not have the enzymes to break this down. Even if we were to look at meat (as an isolated protein source) it is a wholefood and, as you will see below contains some of the exact same amino acids as human breastmilk.
How Is This Different to Grains?
One of my key guidelines is on withholding grains from babies until they are closer to 10-12 months. This is due to a babies GI tract not having a key enzyme to breakdown the starch in grains. It is also due to the lower nutritional value (and iron) of grains as a whole. You can read more on this here. It is important to note that grains are a food group, not a macro-nutrient and they are all processed. We cannot eat grains of any sort off a crop in their whole form. They all, even the most nutrient dense grains, have had some level of processing in order for them to be consumed.
Protein in Breastmilk
The proteins in breast milk are uniquely suited to an infant's digestive system and nutritional requirements. The following amino acids that are in human breastmilk are also in meat:
- Glutamic acid
The last two amino acids comprise of nearly 50% of all the free amino acids in breastmilk. So if babies had a problem breaking these down…well they would have a problem with breastmilk!
Balancing Core Foods:
As with any aspect of a baby's diet, keeping in mind what I call the core foods is important. While protein is important and a crucial source of iron (one of the three core foods I discuss) babies also need good sources of vegetables and healthy fat. Too much of anything is never beneficial, as it can displace an opportunity for other key nutrients. Given current levels of iron deficiency still prevalent in babies and the small number of opportunities they get to eat especially at the start it is unlikely for them to ‘over consume’ on meat or protein unless they are only given these regularly and not other core foods.
In conclusion, providing protein at night for your baby is extremely unlikely to result in them waking frequently. There is significant research and science to support its importance in your babies starting solids journey, including at dinner. I hope that understanding the importance of nighttime growth and repair processes and the need for high iron sources not only to support melatonin but also for their brain development helps. For all three of my boys, once they were having a dinner meal I gave them meat and protein night (Ray in the photo). As always, if in any doubt do book a 1:1 consultation to ensure that you are meeting your baby's specific nutritional needs.
Further Help and Resources:
My top resources and food products to help here are my Baby Porridge with Pumpkin mix and my DJK slow cooker mixes – which are all baby friendly from the start. You will also find lots of protein-rich baby food recipes in my cookbooks and free on my blog:
Truly hope this helps,
xx Dr Julie