By Pinky McKay
Could YOUR diet be contributing to sleepless nights for your baby (and you)? The chances are, if you or your partner suffer from allergies such as eczema, asthma or hay fever, or if there is a family history of allergies, there is a stronger possibility that your baby’s restlessness and poor sleep could be due to food sensitivity or allergies – and he could be reacting to foods passing through your breast milk.
Food allergies in exclusively breastfed babies are caused by foods that pass into your breast milk, not to your breast-milk itself. Allergies in infants may cause symptoms including: colic, nausea, vomiting and reflux, wheezing and respiratory congestion, dermatitis, eczema, and various rashes (although other medical causes should be ruled out for these symptoms). Because babies may be sensitised to foods in utero, it is wise to avoid non-essential foods that are common allergens and eat others in moderation during pregnancy and for the first year after birth if you are breastfeeding. The most common culprit is cow’s milk protein (found in milk, cheese, yoghurt).
In one study at a UK sleep clinic, 12 per cent of thirteen-month-old infants who presented with persistent night-waking for which no other causes were found, were taken off all milk products when cow’s milk intolerance was suspected. In most of these children, sleep normalised within five weeks, with night-time awakenings falling to nil or once per night. A subsequent milk challenge (double blind) induced the reappearance of insomnia and, after a year, when the challenge was repeated, all but one child reacted as before.
Other foods that may cause allergies are peanuts, eggs, soya products, fish, wheat, citrus and chocolate. However, reactions to foods seem to vary widely among individuals. Some sensitive babies react even to small amounts of certain foods in their mothers’ diets, so allergy symptoms (including frequent night waking), can be alleviated by the elimination of offending foods from the mother’s diet.
The best way to protect your baby from allergies is to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months. If you are bottle-feeding and suspect allergies to cow’s milk, consult your doctor about trying a hypoallergenic formula (these are available on prescription).
Food additives are present in ever-increasing numbers in almost all processed foods and these can dramatically affect sleep patterns and behaviour. Some babies and children can also become restless after eating foods containing salicylates. These are naturally occurring chemicals which are found in otherwise healthy foods such as broccoli, grapes, apples, oranges and tomatoes as well as in some processed foods.
I have seen remarkable changes in babies’ sleep patterns with simple tweaks to either mum or baby’s diets. For instance, a very unsettled 4 week old baby whose mother cut out orange juice, became calm and slept soundly within 48 hours! An eight month old who loved broccoli but was waking up to ten times a night, settled and woke at around 10 pm and at 5 am (but resettled after a breastfeed), when broccoli was eliminated. Other babies have slept well after the elimination of grapes and berries (also high salicylate foods) from their own and mum’s diets.
Tracking down offending foods in your child’s or your own diet may take some effort, especially for already exhausted parents, but in the long run it could gain you more sleep. If you think that sleeplessness may be related to foods in your diet passing through your breast-milk, keep a notepad handy and jot down your baby’s crying times and what you eat to see if they are linked. If there appears to be a ‘cause and effect’ between foods in your diet and your baby’s crying, an inexpensive and simple solution is to eliminate the suspect food for at least a week, preferably two weeks. If your baby’s sleep patterns improve, you can either be thankful and avoid the suspect food, or you can reintroduce a small amount of the food into your diet – if the night-waking or allergy symptoms re-occur, you can be pretty certain you have ‘nailed’ the culprit. Elimination of foods may take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to make a difference to your baby’s behaviour so allergies are difficult to prove or disprove, but if it calms your baby (and you), modifying your diet is a small sacrifice.
Sometimes, sleep will be elusive without major dietary changes but in other cases it will just be a matter of balance, perhaps taking care not to overload on certain foods that seem to affect your child. A good guide to sensible eating is to include a wide variety of foods in as close to their natural state as possible. This means that eating fresh vegetables, whole grains, fish, meats and free-range eggs, and drinking plain milk or water instead of filling your supermarket trolley with frozen chicken nuggets, snack bars, coloured yoghurts and juice boxes, could see you and your little ones all sleeping more soundly. If you find the thought of changing your diet overwhelming, seek help from an appropriate professional such as a dietician.
Pinky McKay is a best-selling author, lactation consultant and mum of five.
Check out Pinky’s Parenting by Heart Mummy Meet-ups – these are free informal meet up groups of mums, babies and small children who share and support gentle parenting.