Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

Children Sleep What They Eat

August 25, 2008 By: Kathy Category: Solutions

We all accept, pretty much without question, the principle of comfort food.

We’ve all felt that “Mmmm…” moment when an intense craving for brie, chocolate or pulled pork finally gets satisfied.

We know (many of us) what it feels like to be buzzed or, let’s face it, out and out drunk.

The relationship between what we eat and our state of mind is pretty instinctively understood.

So why the surprise when, this week, I realized with a start that sugar ramps my kid up?

I should have taken better notice about 2 1/2 years ago, when I went without chocolate for (gasp!) a whole day. The Dragon was eight months old at the time and still breastfeeding. That night, he went to sleep quite easily — for once.

Maybe it was denial or just profound disconnect, but although I put two and two together at the time, four — to me — equaled caffeine. Not sugar. So I resumed my chocolate habit but recommitted to decaf coffee and cut out the Diet Coke. For a while. The Dragon still slept poorly, so I wrote that one night off as a fluke, then forgot about it.

Since then, we’ve struggled with getting him to sleep at night — and to stay asleep.

I have read what seems like every book on the market — hope springs eternal! — and together Alan and I implemented solution after solution after solution. A few days would go by and things would look up. But then the inevitable slide back into sleeplessness would begin, and we’d all end up as frustrated, forlorn and fatigued as ever.

Then one day a few weeks ago, one of the Dragon’s daycare teachers, who knew of our sleep challenges, suggested offhand that perhaps evening sugar consumption was contributing to the problem. It wasn’t like we served cookies and candy for dinner, but we were definitely guilty of giving into requests for sweets more often than not. And we were willing to try anything, so we started watching.

Sure enough, we began to notice that even a little sugar in the afternoon or evening delayed the Dragon’s sleep window by an hour or more, and that he’d never cop to being tired if there was sugar in his system: He’d just keep going, and going, and going.

Without sugar, we can count on him to tell us he’s ready for bed between 8:15 and 8:30. It’s still not always easy to get him to sleep, but it’s not a nightmare. With sugar in his system, he just doesn’t wind down, and bedtime becomes a battle zone.

The pinnacle came last Friday night. I’d promised the Dragon we’d make cookies together when he got home from daycare. But the minute I started pulling ingredients from the cupboard, his fingers were in the sugar — literally grabbing gobs of it and shoving it in his mouth. When I took the sugar away, he disintegrated. His screeching, kicking, howling and hitting were alarming and dreadful.

After he calmed down, we resumed the cooking project but with a more measured approach: one ingredient at a time, the bowl close enough for him to dump the ingredients but too far to dunk his hand in.

Even still, he managed to get to the sugar. For me, cooking together is a pleasure, a bonding experience that I’ve had with my mother since early childhood. For the Dragon, that element is there — has been since he could grab a measuring cup — but increasingly it’s become about getting sugar into his system. By the time we were done, he was grabbing handfuls of dough as quickly as he could. I put the bowl of batter on top of the fridge. He howled.

And later, when the cookies were baked and he’d had his allotment of two, there was another meltdown: Just two? No! I need more! More! More! It was all he could see, all he could imagine. For two hours the Dragon sobbed for more sugar. I held my sweet addict in my arms and caught Alan’s eyes over the sobs.

“I’m launching a food revolution in this family,” I yelled. “This is it. No more sugar. This is insane.”

Alan nodded vigorously.

Please realize this is not the result of bad parenting. Yes, we could have made the connection sooner. And yes, we could have limited sweets more than we did. But in general our family eats balanced and healthy meals, so it wasn’t something we really connected. We were so focused on the process of sleep that the connection to food — which we felt we were doing moderately well — slipped us right by. And most of the otherwise-wonderful books on children’s sleep don’t spend much, if any, time on the connection between diet and dreaming. So we just weren’t focused there.

And, says Kathleen DesMaisons, author of Little Sugar Addicts, sugar addiction is a biochemical imbalance. It’s a problem to be addressed, but it’s nobody’s fault.

If you’ve ever seen a person addicted to alcohol do the Jekyll-and-Hyde routine, you know what I’m talking about. They have to have it, even though they know they’ll lose control when they do. It wasn’t until I saw the extreme end of sugar addiction the other night that I deeply understood how food affects mood, how bound up in the habits of the day are the experiences of the night. It was like our typically friendly, balanced, loving child was replaced for a couple hours by a screaming fiend. It was alarming, and awful. We were all badly bruised.

So we’re now working to slowly wean the Dragon and ourselves — especially me: Alan’s vice tends toward the salty, not the sweet — from the allure of sugar. It’s only been a couple days, but already the effects are subtly evident.

We’ll keep you posted.


A short but important postscript:
If you think your child has a sugar sensitivity, check out DesMaisons’ book and/or her website. Please note that she advises against eliminating sugar as the first step toward addressing the problem.

And another one: I don’t by any means believe the effects of sugar are the only reason the Dragon has been sleep-challenged since infancy. I think that, as with many chronic issues people face, there are several different reasons that all converge to create the problem. That’s what makes it so hard: Straightforward solutions don’t work because the reasons come from many different places.

Multi-pronged problems require multi-pronged solutions. The hard part is figuring out what the prongs are. That’s what we’re here for.

Photo credits: Comfort food, Cookie

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  1. Jacqueline Wallis posted the following on August 27, 2008 at 12:54 am.

    I only wish I had known all of this thirty years ago when my daughter was small.  Now I see the same effect with her son who is breastfeeding and sleepless.  I will be passing on the article to her.I’ve been off sugar myself for about two years now after I read Kathleen’s book for adults PnP.  The effect has been nothing short of miraculous and my own sleep patterns have stabilized after 50 years of broken nights so it’s never too late.Thank you for writing such a clear and readable account.Jaki

    Reply to Jacqueline Wallis
  2. Selena posted the following on August 27, 2008 at 1:14 pm.

    I am working the steps with my sugar sensitive daughter too.  We have worked out several breakfasts that work for us.  Now we are adding in a program friendly snack at bedtime too to deal with the *I don’t wanna go to sleep* and *I don’t wanna wake up* syndrome.  The tantrums are slowing down.  Our whole family is starting to breathe again.  Who would have thought that changing what and when you eat could have such a profound affect on our behaviour? 

    Reply to Selena
  3. Emily posted the following on August 31, 2008 at 6:56 am.

    I really enjoyed reading this.  You were able to see such clear connections.  I found Little Sugar Addicts over 3 years ago and our whole life has changed for the better.  We also had lots of sleep issues and they are mostly a thing of the past now.  When our bodies are fueled and our biochemistry is balanced, everything is easier.  We’ve found that a bedtime snack of protein and complex carbohydrate really helps with getting to sleep, staying asleep, and waking in the morning. 

    Reply to Emily

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