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October 18, 2017

Understanding how starting solids can affect your baby's sleep could save a lot of discomfort and wakeful nights, as Emma Purdue explains

'He’ll sleep through the night when you start solids'

How many of us have been told that by a well-meaning friend or family member? The reality of the situation is that, actually, children’s sleep often gets worse when they start solids, especially if the process is done too quickly. A baby drinking just milk, whether it’s formula or breast milk, only requires a certain amount of enzymes to be produced to help digest that milk. The by-products in the digestion process are generally the same, day in and day out. This relatively stable gut environment means your baby will become quite settled and used to how their tummy feels after a feed. 

All of this changes with the introduction of solids

If we introduce a new food type every three days then we are asking the body to digest new compounds every three days. That means new enzymes, new by-products (such as wind), and even the gut flora (the good bacteria that live in the gut) change with this introduction of different food groups. Is this a bad thing? 

No, so don’t panic and don’t delay solids in the fear that it will unsettle your baby. It is good to understand from your baby’s perspective why they might be grizzling or feeling unsettled with the introduction of a new food. Their tummy might feel weird or different to how it felt a week ago and all of this, while trying to sleep, can be quite difficult sometimes!

What you can do to help your baby along as they start on solids

  •  Offer new foods at lunch not dinner

  •  Start slowly and progress slowly

  •  Keep a food diary

  •  Keep protein away from bedtime

  •  Milk before food until eight months

  •  Consider a feed window of 60 minutes

Would you rather their lunchtime nap was unsettled, or their night sleep? Ensuring that all new foods are offered before midday means any reactions don’t occur in the middle of the night when you are trying to grab a few hours of sleep yourself.

Start and progress slowly 

This means that you don’t rush through food groups and overwhelm your baby’s tummy. Too many new foods too quickly is a recipe for broken sleep and can lead to the reactive introduction of sleep props due to these disruptions. 

“Ava was self-settling and only waking once a night for a quick feed. Once we started solids I figured that if I could increase what she was eating quickly I could drop that night feed. Instead she woke more and more overnight,
I knew she wasn’t hungry, she was eating so much solid food at dinner! I was worried that  something was wrong so started rocking her back to sleep. This quickly became a habit and by eight months I was rocking her back to sleep every two hours overnight! What happened to my great sleeper?”

Ava progressed with her solids too quickly, and this upset her tummy, consequently affecting her sleep. Speak with your Well Child provider if you are concerned about how quickly to increase your baby’s solids.

Keep a food diary

A food diary will ensure that you can see if your baby does have a bad reaction to any new foods. Perhaps the day you introduced pumpkin at dinner they woke three times that night! Maybe stick to pumpkin at lunch for a few weeks before trying it at dinner again.

Protein is a wonderful source of energy and often iron for our babies, but it is a little trickier to digest than a simple carbohydrate such as baby rice or puréed sweet potatoes. Sometimes, giving the main protein meal of the day at dinnertime can disrupt night sleep because your baby might wake as their body tries to digest the protein. Stick to protein at lunch until 9-10 months old to avoid these unnecessary wake-ups. 

Milk before food until eight months ensures your baby still gets adequate volumes of milk until this time. Often, the foods we start with contain far fewer calories than milk, and therefore filling up on puréed apple at the expense of milk will probably mean your baby wakes at night for an extra feed. Let them take a big milk feed before you offer any solids up until eight months old. This will protect your sleep and help your baby gradually increase their solids as their appetite grows.

Adopting a feed window of 40-60 minutes simply means that all solids and milk, whether you are doing milk or solids first, should be offered inside a 40 to 60-minute time period. This is to give your baby a chance to work up an appetite, making feed times more effective. 

A common problem we find once solids are introduced, right up to one year old, is children being fed more frequently than a newborn

If you space out your feeds you will find yourself offering milk or food every two hours throughout the day. i.e. 7am: milk, 8.30am: breakfast solids, 10.30am: milk, 12pm: solids, 2.30pm: milk, 5pm: solids... This means your baby doesn’t have time to develop any real appetite, as the time between eating is often less than two hours, resulting in snack milk feeding, fussy solid eating and more wake-ups at night due to your baby being hungry! The relationship between solids and sleep can be a tricky one to navigate, but if you can keep these simple ideas in mind as you introduce new foods into your baby’s routine then they will be eating and sleeping well in no time. 

Foods that encourage sleep are poultry, bananas and dairy products. They are rich in tryptophan, a compound that supports the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep. 

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