Feeding Your Toddler Right for Good Sleep

Nutrition, Behavior & More · Toddler Sleep

Eating the right foods (and avoiding the wrong ones) can significantly impact how well your toddler sleeps. 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.

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 formula. But cow’s milk is not 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 context.

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. First, it is important to stop bottles. Babies will take in large amounts of milk this way and fill up on the wrong stuff. Instead, offer a cup (with a straw) of milk with snacks, and water with meals. Offering water at mealtimes ensures that he fills up on food instead of milk.

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

You will notice that your toddler drinks drastically less milk after you switch to the cup. 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.

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 requirement of sixteen ounces. Full fats are still vital to the developing brain for another year.

Say Goodbye to Milk before Bed

After age one, milk should not be a part of the bedtime routine. When you drop the bedtime bottle, there is no need to replace it with anything. Milk before bed contributes to middle of the night wake ups.

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. Milk before bed can even cause nightmares. I haven’t been able to find research for this but I’ve personally seen it enough times to know it’s true.


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 and baby will take in the amount needed. You can stick with just breast milk or you can offer cow’s milk on top of that. If you are pumping, 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.

Rules for Food Before Bed

The food your toddler eats in the evening affects how well he will sleep. Eating right makes a world of difference in his getting a good night’s sleep.

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 does not impact sleep. Carefully check ingredients, avoiding any caffeine, red dye, or sugar. Soda, juice, and chocolate are some examples of where to steer clear. Even fruit has sugar content and it is not best before bedtime.

A Snack Is a Snack

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. Remember that a healthy and balanced diet is essential for getting good rest.


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