My last post was about dropping the bedtime feed: when, why, and how. So, with that in mind, you may be wondering: should you give your toddler a snack before bed?
Here's the short answer: no. Toddlers don't need to eat right before bed. One of the main reasons I recommend dropping a bedtime milk feed at 12 months is because the sugar content in the milk becomes more of a hindrance to sleep than it is helpful to sleep. This is the same with most bedtime snacks, especially the snacks that most toddlers would want! Sugar close to bedtime can cause your child to have more trouble falling asleep. It can also keep him from getting as deep of a sleep through the night, which can produce more night wake-ups. (Read more about how sugar affects sleep in this post.)
Furthermore, eating in general right before bed can cause lighter sleep. That food needs to be digested, but you don't really want your stomach creating acids right when you're lying down to go to sleep. This is a common cause of reflux, heartburn, and indigestion. I know I don't sleep as well when I eat a lot right before bed; it's no different for children.
One other reason we don't offer our kids a bedtime snack in our house is because we want them to eat their dinner. They know that they don't get anything else after dinner. So, if they're hungry, they need to eat what we offer them at dinnertime. This may sound harsh, but they're simply not going to eat the healthy, fulfilling food we offer them at dinner if they know they can have a fun, sugary snack a little later. It can be very frustrating when they ask for a snack 10 minutes after refusing to eat dinner. The easiest way to avoid it is to stop offering a bedtime snack!
So, while you may think that giving your child a bedtime snack will help him sleep better, it actually does the opposite. I promise you that if your toddler still isn't sleeping through the night, a bedtime snack isn't going to solve that. At this age, the sleep issues are much more likely due to a sleep prop dependency and/or a schedule issue than it is hunger.
Special Circumstances For a Bedtime Snack
The only time we do give our kids (currently 4, 2, and 14-months) a bedtime snack is if we need to eat dinner really early for a special circumstance. We typically eat dinner between 5:30-6:30pm and bedtime is at 7:30pm. After dinner, they don't eat anything else until breakfast the next morning. However, if dinner is more than 2 hours prior to bedtime, then we may offer them something very small about 45 minutes before bed.
There may also be some circumstances where a child isn't growing and gaining enough weight, or has other medical concerns, that would warrant a bedtime snack. Always follow your doctor's recommendations. However, if there are no medical concerns, then a snack is not necessary.
Best Bedtime Snacks
If you do need to offer your child a snack (or you're just going against my advice not to offer one, haha), then it should be as low in sugar as possible. High protein snacks or veggies are best. A piece of cheese or a few baby carrots, for example, are examples of snacks that won't hinder sleep too much.
A bedtime snack is not necessary for children, and can actually hinder sleep more than it is helpful. If your child is having sleep issues that you can't solve, try ditching the snack! If there are underlying sleep issues, I can help!
~Ashley Bell, pediatric sleep consultant