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The Starting Solids-Sleep Link

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Do you have a far off memory of what that was?

Many years on and counting and sleep still is not what is was like in LBC (life before children). However that first year when bubs arrives into this world hands down takes the cake when it comes to sleep deprivation.

An area of sleep for little ones especially before their first birthday which is not often discussed is the relationship between sleep and food. Food of course for babies is in the form of milk (breastmilk or formula) but also the process of moving on to solid food.

Now I do have a whole chapter on this relationship in my book The Nourished Baby AND if I am really honest I could write an entire book on the science of sleep - period - for babies (I just might be you know!). However, as sleep deprivation is such a challenge for parents I hope the following tips will give you a few pointers and things to try straight away.

Sleep is very much hormonally driven.

There are a lot of hormonal processes which stimulate the body to sleep and when we do not get enough sleep, hormonal processes are also subsequently altered - which in turn affects food intake and vis versa.

For example:

One night of sleep deprivation (either less sleep or broken sleep) increases our hunger hormone (grehlin) and decreases our satiety or fullness hormone (leptin). Literally this means our hormones are telling us we are more hungry when we have less sleep.

And that is one night of sleep deprivation.

...You can do the math on the nights ah years of sleep deprivation for many mums right...

Babies are no different.

We will see this with babies who then need to feed more and/or struggle with the process of starting solids as this is a new task and challenge for them - which if you are sleep deprived and babies will potentially get a bit more frustrated with - in turn this can affect how much they eat and creates a bit of an ongoing cycle. Not to mention if they are feeding frequently through the night they are effectively getting their daily calories when their circadian rhythm is programmed to be asleep. This is likely to impact hunger during the day and potentially digestion as well. We can quickly get a compounding effect of all of this.

So if you are feeling really stuck with your babies sleep and food the snowballing affect of what I have described above is why you feel a bit like you are going around and around in circles (sleepless circles at that).

The Tri-Factor Approach.

While tackling the subject of sleep is always a delicate area and every baby is different. I can hand-on-heart say this from experience with three very different boys of my own. Overall though I do recommend a tri-factor approach to this relationship:

1. Food - Babies need food which is conducive to promoting sleep and supporting sleep hormones

2. Environment - A space set up which is also conducive to sleep and promotes positive sleep associations.

3. Sleep Techniques - that work for your family and specific child.



The most common problem areas that I see in regards to solid food for babies are:

    • Processed products – I have to say this given the state of our baby food industry right now (full details in my book) which still includes your vegetable and fruit based baby food. Remember this baby food had undergone several processes such as heating and cooling which deactivates a number of enzymes to give baby food a shelf life without needing additives. The flip-side to this is a significant reduction of nutrients.

    • Added sugar – Again, I have to mention this given the results of the research I have done on the baby food industry which showed 15% of products contain added sugar. This is not going to promote sleep and if anything cause babies to stay awake longer and crash harder making it more difficult for them to get to sleep in supportive way.

    • A lack of iron and protein which help the release of melatonin. I see a lot of worry when it comes to introducing meat to babies which is one of the highest sources of both of these nutrients. You can check out my earlier blog on meat for babies here.Cuddly


    • Darkness - It is often of the belief that babies can sleep anywhere and some will do. However hormonally they do need darkness for the hormone melatonin to release, especially to enable them to get into a deep rem sleep. Given the wonders of electricity that we enjoy today creating a dark environment is something we need to do. Personally I have found black out blinds of the best things we ever brought and still use them in the boys rooms today. This also means when a baby wakes in the night to keep the room dark (or as dark as possible) to help tell their hormone system that it is still time for sleep.

    • Body Temperature Regulation – Babies take some time to adapt physiologically to be able to regulate their temperature. Being too cold or too hot can cause them to struggle to go to sleep and/or wake up. As we are coming in to warmer months having sleep wear that aids this is crucial. I cannot recommend merino and pajamas enough and all my boys have used this since they were born. Completely natural merino wool has the unique ability to breath and keep what is called the ‘micro-climate' between your baby’s skin and clothing regulated - even in very hot temperatures.

  • Sleep Associations – To help signal a babies hormones to release having certain cues can help. A sleeping bag is also helpful in this regard too as well as creating a snug feeling. All my boys have used a cuddly as well, something that can be easily found in the cot without you having to get up!


Sleep Techniques

This is probably the most delicate area of baby sleep and you will find a lot of divided opinions in regards to this too. While babies can easily put themselves to sleep (and regulate their temperature for that matter) inside the womb...they need help to do this once outside that snug, dark, strangely noisy environment. This is why I personally believe (with a lot of supporting research) that sleep is a pattern of learnt behaviour. How you help to guide your baby to sleep needs to work for you, your family and your baby. There will be a way to teach your baby to self-settle and get themselves back to sleep that is right for you....hopefully knowing that you may need to guide your baby with this will give you a place to start.

Smushie cropped

Getting Help

I mention this in my book and it is worth reiterating here as well. Sleep deprivation is one of the hardest challenges of parenting, especially today given the growing isolation of many families. Please do not be afraid to get help with this - whether it is talking to a sleep consultant that has techniques you agree with, checking about your babies food intake (I do this via skype consultations) or investing in some good quality sleep wear...or all of the above. Both babies and parents need to be nourished with sleep and often it is not as simple as it seems.

xxx Dr Julie Bhosale

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