The hidden link between sleep and digestion in babies and toddlers

The hidden link between sleep and digestion in babies and toddlers

There are as many different reasons why babies and toddlers don’t sleep as there are approaches to help them to sleep better.  I have seen parents losing their minds trying to work out why their baby sleeps well one night and not the next.  I have seen strong, capable and calm mothers and fathers cry in desperation at yet another broken night.  Theories abound as to why a particular infant is not sleeping – they are too hot, too cold, teething, don’t like the dark, slept too much in the day, didn’t sleep enough in the day…. However, one thing rarely gets mentioned, and that is the link between sleep and the digestive system. 

When a baby is born, their digestive system goes from being completely dormant (in the womb the baby receives all its food via the umbilical cord) to working overtime.  Babies usually double their birth weight in the first five or so months of life.  In order to do this, they need to ingest and digest an enormous number of calories.   Assuming their basic needs are being met, how a baby manages this task dictates more than anything else how they will feel.  If their digestive system is working well, they are likely be happy and settled. If it is not, they are likely to be grouchy and unsettled.

One of the most common ways for things to go awry, is for food (which includes breast milk) to accumulate somewhere in the baby’s digestive tract.  In Chinese Medicine paediatrics, this is known as Accumulation Disorder.  The baby or toddler simply does not have enough digestive qi to keep the food moving through, so it lingers around and festers.  When this happens, the food starts to ferment and generates extra heat in the body.  This heat rises up and affects the shen, which is often translated as ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ and which governs the ability to sleep.  

In adults, the equivalent is what I call ‘Great Uncle John on Christmas Day syndrome’.  After eating an enormous meal, much of it rich, heavy food, not moving around and with some heightened emotions added into the mix too (family all together having not seen each other all year), Great Uncle John will start burping, farting and becoming irritable, and will often not sleep well that night.  He may complain of gripey pains in his stomach and feel much better after he’s taken some antacids and then had a good evacuation of his bowels.  This is similar to how a baby or toddler with Accumulation Disorder feels.  Unlike Great Uncle John however, due to his immature digestive system, an infant is prone to this on a daily basis, not just Christmas day. 

In order to minimise the chances of Accumulation Disorder developing, there are a few general dietary guidelines that should be followed:

  • The baby/toddler should have gaps between feeds and/or meals, even when solely breastfed.  This is to make sure they have fully digested one feed without running the risk of ‘overloading’ their system with the next.  Every child is different, but a rough guideline is to allow 2 hours minimum between the end of one feed and the start of the next.
  • The baby/toddler should not eat too many raw, rich, heavy or greasy foods.  They will be better able to digest foods that have been cooked, such as rice congee.  This is so that the first part of the digestive process has been done for them, during the cooking process, and their immature digestive systems do not have to work quite so hard.  
  • Some kids have eyes that are bigger than their stomachs!  While it goes against most people’s instincts to limit what a baby eats, some robust types do not know when to stop (to read more about this, take a look ‘Is your toddler a robust or sensitive type?).  This means they cannot process the amount of food they take in, and their system becomes clogged up.  So making sure the child does not over-eat will lessen the chances of Accumulation Disorder developing.
  • Try to ensure that the baby or toddler is as relaxed as possible when they are feeding or eating, and that the environment is calm.  In Chinese medicine, we talk about good digestion needing the ‘smooth flow of qi’ to the stomach and intestines.  Being relaxed helps this. 

The Chinese have a saying that goes ‘if the stomach is not harmonised, sleep will not be restful’.  Of course, there can be other reasons for poor sleep, but this is one that should be considered and is often ignored.  Look out for more blogposts on sleep in babies, children and teenagers! 

Rebecca Avern

I have been practising acupuncture for 15 years. As well as practising in Oxford, I am both a senior lecturer and clinical supervisor at the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine (www.cicm.org.uk) which is the biggest acupuncture training centre in Europe. I have treated both adults and children and whilst the benefits of acupuncture for adults are well-known and well-documented, fewer people are aware of how it can benefit children. I decided that I wanted more children to experience the benefits of acupuncture, and so decided to set up The Panda Clinic. I have to admit to having another motivation - I love being around children and derive great satisfaction when I see children recover from ill health. I am mother to 2 primary school age children. As well as being an experienced acupuncturist, as a parent I have a good understanding of the stress and anxiety that an ill child can induce. I will always do my best to communicate with the parent(s) of a child I am treating as thoroughly and clearly as I can.