Parents who have a hard time getting their babies and toddlers to sleep at night may also often have trouble at mealtime, new study findings suggest.
So-called behavioral insomnia, where a young child regularly resists bedtime or has trouble staying asleep, is common — seen in up to 30 percent of children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years.
A similar percentage have problems at mealtime, ranging from being an overly “fussy” eater to having a full-fledged “feeding disorder” – in which, for instance, parents can’t get their child to follow any regular eating schedule, or the food refusal affects a child’s weight.
It might not be surprising to many parents that sleeping and eating issues often go hand-in-hand. But the new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, is the first to show this may be true.
Among parents of 681 healthy kids 6 months to 3 years old, Israeli researchers found that those whose child had behavioral insomnia were more likely than other parents to say their child had eating issues as well.
And parents whose children were diagnosed with a feeding disorder were more likely to say they had trouble getting their child to sleep at night.
When asked if mealtime was a “problem,” one-quarter of parents of children with insomnia said that it was; that compared with nine percent of other parents.
Similarly, 37 percent of parents whose children had an eating problem said that sleep was also an issue. In contrast, only 16 percent of other parents said the same.
Young children’s eating and sleeping habits are the two most common concerns parents bring to their pediatricians, write the researchers, led by Dr. Riva Tauman of Tel Aviv Medical Center.
The current findings, they say, suggest that doctors should be aware that the two issues commonly go together, and help parents find ways to manage both.
The standard way to address behavioral insomnia is for parents to change their children’s nighttime routine. That usually means setting a regular bedtime and certain rituals, like reading a story, that let a young child know bedtime is coming.
With eating problems, experts generally suggest that parents try to get kids interested in mealtime from an early age — gradually introducing a variety of healthy, colorful foods, for instance, and making the eating environment pleasant but without any distractions like TV.
The current findings are based on 58 children who had been diagnosed with behavioral insomnia, 76 with a feeding disorder, and 547 who were studied for comparison.
Parents of children with insomnia were more likely to also report feeding “problems” — worrying, for example, that their child was not eating enough or not growing properly.
Similarly, parents of children with feeding disorders were often worried about their child’s sleep; and compared with other parents, they reported that their children got to bed almost an hour later, and slept for fewer hours each night.
It’s possible, according to Tauman’s team, that parents of young children with feeding disorders are more sensitive to sleep issues — and vice-versa.
But they say it’s also likely that parenting practices, like a lack of consistency in enforcing rules, underlie both problems.
On the positive side, the researchers note, that means that getting help for one issue could help parents manage both.
Tips for getting your child to sleep
Stick to a bedtime. “Don’t wait until your baby is rubbing his eyes or yawning to put him to bed,” says Marc Weissbluth, MD, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. “By then he’s overtired.” If you notice your child winding down at 8 p.m., make that his/her bedtime.
Get into the routine. Thirty minutes to an hour before bedtime, start a calming ritual that may include giving a bath and reading a story or two.
Put your baby in his/her crib awake. If your child is routinely rocked to sleep at bedtime, what happens when she wakes up alone at 3 a.m.? Answer: She cries. “All infants and toddlers wake two to six times a night,” says Parents advisor Jodi Mindell, PhD, coauthor of Take Charge of Your Child’s Sleep. “They need to know how to put themselves back to sleep.”
Swaddle for the first three months. Research shows that infants who are swaddled wake up less and sleep longer than other babies.
Tune out. If your baby seems sensitive to household sounds, try running a white-noise machine or a fan in her room.
Let the sun in. Expose your baby to about 30 minutes of light each morning. Why? Light suppresses the release of the sleep hormone melatonin; this helps set her internal clock — making it easier for her to fall asleep at night.