The Effect of Sugar on Sleep
Updated: Jan 8
I recently took Gideon to the dentist for the second time ever. Due to the pandemic, it had been over a year since his first appointment. I began talking it up prior to and he was actually excited for it. On the way to his appointment, I told him that if he was good and did what the dentist asked him to do without fussing, I'd take him to get a cake pop afterwards.
He did AMAZING at the dentist. He was polite, answered every question they asked him, and opened his mouth right up when they told him to. The cake pop was certainly earned! When he was all done and climbing out of the big dentist chair, he announced to the dentist, her assistant, and I, "Yay, I get a cake pop!"
We all laughed and I joked that he was telling on me for giving him #sugar as a reward. The dentist said she had no problem with it as long as we brushed his teeth! (As a side note, she also said she'd much prefer something like that over something gummy.) While the dentist may be okay with me giving my children some sugar as long as we brush, as a sleep consultant, I have some other reservations about it. How does sugar affect children?
Too much sugar before bed can cause issues at bedtime. Your child could be having a "sugar high" and have trouble settling down. I recently worked with a family that didn't limit sugar at all. Once they started limiting sugar in the afternoon and evening, the bedtime struggles with their 3-year old started to get better. Previously, he was simply having a hard time calming down during the bedtime routine and it was making it a long, drawn out process. There were still some behaviors we had to deal with too, but once we did that, too much sugar was the last piece of the puzzle to get him cooperating at bedtime. They saw improvement within a couple of nights once they cut down on his sugar intake.
All Day Sugar
Watching sugar before bedtime is one thing, but the amount of sugar your child eats during the day can also affect how he sleeps at night. That's right, too much sugar consumed at any time of the day can cause sleep issues. According to The National Sleep Foundation,
"The more sugar that you eat during the day, the more often you’re going to wake up in the middle of the night. Even if you don’t fully wake up, the sugar in your system can pull you out of a deep sleep, making you feel exhausted the next day."
Even if your child sleeps all night, too much sugar could be causing less deep, restorative sleep. Children do 75% of their growth and brain development during sleep, so that deep sleep is very important. Aside from that, too much sugar (and consequently less deep sleep) can result in a sluggish child during the day. This can affect everything from mood and behavior to schooling and social interactions.
It's obvious that limiting sugar is beneficial for sleep. Here are some tips to make sure sugar isn't causing sleep issues for your child.
It seems like everything has sugar in it these days. We all know that things like candies and baked goods have sugar in them, but you may not realize how much sugar a cereal or granola bar has in it. You may think your child isn't consuming that much sugar in a day if he isn't eating a lot of candy and sweets. Yet, you will likely be surprised if you look at the sugar in everything he eats. Remember, any carbohydrate has sugar. Breads, crackers, and pasta, for example, all have sugar in them even though you wouldn't consider them to be "sugary" foods.
Even the organic Macaroni & Cheese my kids love has 6g of sugar per serving (there are 2.5 servings in the box).
Toddlers and young children are notorious for being picky eaters. While it's easier to let them eat the carb-filled foods and snacks they love, it's not beneficial for them- for sleep or overall health. There are lots of "snack foods" out there that boast being loved by even the pickiest eaters. Even though they may be labeled organic or have healthy ingredients, they also usually have a ton of sugar.
Instead, try fresh veggies, cheese sticks, or nuts (if your child is old enough). Find something without sugar that your child likes and serve it up a lot. A little bit of sugar is not horrible, but if your child is only eating carbs and sugars all day long...that will likely cause issues.
Fresh Fruit and Juices
While natural fruit sugar is much better than a processed sugar, it is still sugar. Both of my children would eat fruit ALL. DAY. LONG. if I let them. Fruit has great vitamins and minerals and is wonderful in moderation. However, fruit sugar has the same affect on the body as any other sugar. Therefore, fruit intake should be limited as well, especially in the evening. Berries tend to have less sugar, while fruits like bananas and mangoes have the most. A simple Google search for "fruits with less sugar" could help you find low-sugar fruits that your kids will love.
I recently had another client who was already limiting processed sugars, but hadn't thought about fruit as also having an effect. This child was previously having oatmeal with cut up fruit in it for or after dinner most nights. Once they stopped giving him this, they noticed some changes in his bedtime behavior almost immediately.
Just as fruit has sugar, so do fruit juices- especially ones with added sugar in them. One Capri Sun juice pouch has about 10 grams of sugar in it, which is more than half the allotment of daily sugar for a 2-6-year old! Even a juice that says it has no added sugar still has sugar in it. If your child is drinking juice often, I would bet he's consuming more sugar than you think. Limit juice to once a day or, even better, for special occasions. At the very least, water it down when you do give it to him.
Holidays and Special Events
It's currently the middle of October as I write this. Halloween is right around the corner. Then comes Thanksgiving and Christmas in the next two months. I think most people would agree in calling this season "the sugar season."
Am I going to tell you to squash your child's holiday joy by taking all of the sugar away? Of course not. But I am going to tell you to limit it. Don't let them have their Halloween bag or Christmas stocking at their reach. Try letting them choose just one treat a day instead of eating out of it like a bag of potato chips. When you are allowing them to eat candy and other sweets, make sure to be aware of and limit the sugar they get from the other sources mentioned above.
Also, limit the amount you even give them. Buy non-food items to give at these holidays too. Pencils, coloring books/crayons, small toys, bouncy balls, and trinkets are in no shortage during a holiday.
When all is said and done, enjoy the event with your family! Remember though, that most holidays are celebrated in one day. Even a holiday that is more than one day isn't meant to be a sugar-fest for a whole month. Don't let the celebration drag on and then wonder why your child isn't as well-rested or is fighting sleep!
Sugar is found in so many places and is hard to avoid completely. However, too much sugar can really have an effect on sleep and the growth and restoration that the body goes through during sleep. Limit it as much as possible to help your child (and yourself) get the optimal rest he needs!
~Ashley Bell, pediatric sleep consultant