The Link Between Nutrition & Sleep for Your Toddler

Nutrition, Behavior & More · Toddler Sleep

Did you know that what your toddler eats will impact their sleep quality? And we’re not just talking avoiding sugar before bed, either. Here are a few tips and tweaks for your toddler’s nutrition to help you equip him for the best sleep possible!

After age one, babies’ nutritional needs shift, and it’s easy to unwittingly cause sleep problems by offering the wrong foods at the wrong times. The good news is that now that you know this, you can fix it!

As your baby’s body grows and changes, so do their nutritional needs. There are two major changes in a baby’s dietary needs after her first birthday. To begin, milk is no longer the primary source of nutrition, but rather solid foods are now more important.

Secondly, cow’s milk can be introduced. When you start cow’s milk, you’ll wean your little one from formula or breastmilk. But cow’s milk isn’t simply a replacement for formula. It plays a very different role in a toddler’s diet, and it needs to be offered in a new way.

Switching to Cow’s Milk

Milk is a drink, not a meal replacement like formula. Infants supplement their milk intake (breastmilk or formula) with solid foods, but toddlers do the opposite. Milk now accompanies and enriches a balanced, nutritious diet.

There are a few things you can do to help your toddler make the switch.The first step to make this transition is to stop serving milk in bottles. Babies will take in large amounts of milk this way and fill up on the wrong stuff.

By offering cow's milk to your toddler in an open cup they will be less likely to exceed the recommended 16 ounces of milk per day, and still have room to meet their nutritional needs with food.

Instead, offer a cup of milk with snacks and water with meals. Offering water at mealtimes ensures that he fills up on food instead of milk, which is needed for the variety of nutrition it provides.

How Much Milk Does a One-Year-Old Need?

If you switch from a bottle or sippy cup to an open cup, you will notice that your toddler drinks drastically less milk …and that’s both normal and healthy! There is no need to worry–this is what we want. Let your child be the guide of how much milk he drinks, as long as it stays between eight and sixteen ounces a day.

On that note, it is important not to exceed sixteen ounces of milk per day. Not only can this affect sleep, but it also inhibits iron absorption. If your toddler is drinking closer to eight ounces per day, offer other dairy products or healthy fats so that she meets the nutritional recommendation of sixteen ounces.

Remember: full fats are still vital to the developing brain for another year.

Say Goodbye to Milk before Bed

After your little one’s first birthday, milk shouldn’t continue to be part of his bedtime routine. When you drop the bedtime bottle, there’s no need to replace it with anything. Milk before bed contributes to middle of the night wake ups and this is less than ideal.

There are a few reasons that milk disturbs sleep, one being its sugar content. Milk actually has a lot of sugar in it–about thirteen grams per serving. A spike in blood sugar levels causes hyperactivity, making it harder for a child to relax and fall asleep. Later, when blood sugar drops, there is a crash out that can cause night wakings.

Some people anecdotally report that it can even cause nightmares in little ones.


Weaning from breastfeeding is optional to do before age one. It’s ok to continue if you wish because breast milk naturally changes its content as your little one matures and your baby will naturally consume just the right amount. You can stick with just breast milk or you can offer cow’s milk in addition to it. If you are pumping, however, be sure to drop bottles.

Nursing around naps and bed can negatively affect sleep. Saving it for after breakfast and at least forty-five minutes before bedtime will prevent any sleep problems. It is fine to nurse throughout the day as desired. Nursing is for nutrition and bonding, but doesn’t need to be a sleep aid.

Eat Well for Good Sleep

The food your toddler eats in the evening affects how well he will sleep. Nutrition plays a significant role in restful sleep and is something we address in every one of our sleep plans with families. Dinner should be a big, solid meal. Ideally, it will be the final meal of the day. If bedtime is substantially later than dinnertime, some children may still need a snack in the evening.

Pay attention to what your toddler consumes in the several hours leading up to bedtime. End all food one and a half to two hours before bed, so the digestion process doesn’t impact sleep.

Carefully check ingredients – avoiding any caffeine, red dye, or sugar is important for sleep quality. Soda, juice, and chocolate are some examples of where to steer clear. Even fruit has sugar content and is best enjoyed during daylight hours.

Nutritious Bedtime Snacks

Be even more vigilant about what you serve as an evening snack. This is not a full meal, but a bite to ease hunger when breakfast is just too many hours past dinner. Evening snacks should be a balance of protein and high-quality carbohydrates. This might be whole wheat crackers with peanut butter, a piece of cheese, or a slice of apple.

Our children’s bodies are meant to operate on nutritious foods that give them lasting energy. Foods and drinks that do the opposite tend to cause hyperactivity and later leave them suddenly hungry or just feeling uncomfortable. Amongst a host of other issues, this leads to sleep troubles and those lead to harder days, too. Remember that a healthy, balanced, nutritious diet is essential for getting good rest and having energy filled, happy days!

If you have questions about your child’s sleep and how we can help, take advantage of a free evaluation call.

By Katie Pitts, Founder & CEO of Sleep Wise Consulting

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