Sleepy Time Nutrients – Nourishing Your Kids for a Restful Night’s Sleep

By: Lauren Rosen Crosby, MD, FAAP

March 21, 2018

As a practicing pediatrician, parents bring up the subject of sleep almost every time they bring their child into the office. They wonder how to get their child to sleep, and they worry that their child isn’t getting enough sleep.  There are those parents blessed with babies that just fall asleep easily and sleep well, but most parents aren’t that lucky.  During our visits, I address sleep issues from different angles, based on the child’s age and health, going over details related to their daily schedules and nutritional intake. Children’s sleep patterns and requirements change continuously from birth through adolescence.

Parents are correct in being concerned about sleep. Adequate amounts of quality sleep are associated with improved mood, memory, cognition, and immune function at every age. Inadequate or dysfunctional sleep is associated with decreased attention span, memory, judgement, mood, and resistance to infections. Sleep is also important for growth, because growth hormone is released during sleep.

Nutrition’s Role in Sleep

Many factors influence sleep quality, but more and more research is substantiating the role that nutrition plays in facilitating proper sleep. There are several different types of nutrients whose roles in sleep are coming to light, including amino acids (tryptophan), nucleotides, and omega-3s (DHA and EPA). They are found in breast milk, foods and as supplements. One, for example, is an essential amino acid called Tryptophan, which is a component of protein but is also converted by the body to chemicals that act in the brain to induce sleep. In particular, Tryptophan is a precursor for a neurotransmitter called serotonin and a hormone called melatonin.  Both are involved in modulating sleep/wake cycles.

It is interesting that the circadian rhythm of the mother appears to support the infant’s sleep/wake cycle development.  It has been shown that levels of certain nutritional components in breast milk vary during different times of day. Some sleep inducing substances, tryptophan and melatonin, increase during the afternoon, and maximum level are reached during the night. [1] These may produce what is termed a “hypnotic action” inducing sleep in breastfed infants.   More studies are underway on this fascinating linkage between the mother and the baby.

DHA and EPA Omega-3s

The omega-3 fatty acids known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are other important dietary nutrients that science suggests are linked to sleep. These good fats are found naturally in fish and play important roles in the growth and function of the brain. Studies have demonstrated improved neurodevelopmental outcomes in infants whose mothers ate fish or took fish oil supplements during pregnancy. Their babies were shown to have better language and visual motor skills at both 6 and 18 months and even a higher IQ at 4 years of age. [2],[3]  Studies have shown benefits of omega-3s beyond the infancy and early childhood , finding that including them in the diet of kids supports cognitive performance.

Sleep is hypothesized to improve cognitive function by improving memory and the brain’s ability to change and adapt.  Research suggests that DHA plays a role in regulating melatonin production and thus the sleep cycle. In one study, DHA supplementation led to fewer wake episodes and almost one hour more of sleep per night.[4] Another recent study showed that higher fish consumption in 9-11 year olds led to both improved sleep quality and higher verbal IQ. [5]

Sleep is a complex phenomenon that is not yet completely understood. The relationship between nutrition and sleep at all ages is an active area of research, and it is already clear that diet plays an important role in sleep quality and duration.  With my own patients, I regularly recommend DHA supplements and the inclusion of fish in a child’s diet twice a week. Be sure to discuss your child’s diet with your pediatrician at each checkup. You might get some extra sleep too.


[1] Nora Schneider, Gisella Mutungi & Javier Cubero (2016): Diet and nutrients in the modulation of infant sleep: A review of the literature, Nutritional Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1080/1028415X.2016.1258446
[2] Oken, E. et al. Maternal fish intake during pregnancy, blood mercury levels, and child cognition at age 3 years in a US cohort. American Journal of Epidemiology 167, 1171-1181 (2008).
[3] Helland, I.B., et al. Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children’s IQ at 4 years of age. Pediatrics 111, e39-e44 (2003).
[4] Montgomery, Paul, et al. Fatty acids and sleep in UK children: subjective and pilot objective sleep results from the DOLAB study – a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Sleep Research 23: 364-388 (2014).
[5] Liu, Jianghong, et al. The mediating role of sleep in the fish consumption-cognitive functioning relationship: a cohort study. Nature 7:17961 DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-17520-w.

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