Updated: Apr 26, 2021
Milk can affect my child's sleep? You mean if he has a dairy allergy?
I am not talking about dairy allergies. I am not talking about tummy aches or inflammation or sleep cycles. I am also not talking about cow's milk vs plant-based milks. This applies whether your kiddo drinks soy milk or pea milk or cow's milk. Yep, what type of milk your kiddo drinks, how much he drinks, and when he drinks it all can impact his sleep.
Looking for a way to help your kiddo sleep better at night that doesn't require managing overnight wakings or stalling at bedtime? You got it!
PSA: If you have a toddler or preschooler who is hungry as soon as it is time to get ready for bed, drinks milk at bedtime or overnight, or wakes way too early in the morning with his tummy rumbling, this is for you!
Check out 3 ways milk can impact your kiddo's sleep:
1 - Too Much Milk/Whole Milk = Less Solid Foods = Hungry At Bedtime Or Overnight
Milk is an excellent way for your toddler or preschooler to meet his calcium needs. Children ages 2-3 years require 700 mg of calcium daily, which can be a little tricky to obtain without supplementing with milk (cows milk or fortified plant milk). No doubt about it, milk is an important part of your kiddos' diet. However, drinking whole-fat milk and/or more than 2 cups of milk daily can curb your kiddo’s appetite and prevent him from eating other foods with nutrients that he needs.
Very good, so, how does this affect sleep?
What Happens #1
More milk/whole milk = less food
Less food = hungry at bedtime
Hungry at bedtime = asking for food right before/during bedtime routine
Asking for food during bedtime = frustrated/anxious mama + kiddo who goes to bed later than expected
What Happens #2
More milk/whole milk = less food
Less food = hungry overnight
Hungry overnight = overnight wakings + feeding overnight
Overnight wakings = tired kiddo + tired mama + less appetite for breakfast
Less appetite for breakfast = cycle perpetuates
What Happens #3
More milk/whole milk = less food
Less food = hungry very early morning
Hungry very early morning = very early morning wakings
Very early morning wakings = less sleep + tired kiddo + tired mama
My Recommendation: Children age 2+ drink 2 cups of low-fat milk daily to meet their calcium needs. Children ages 2 and 3 can meet their calcium needs with 2 cups of milk (cow’s milk or fortified plant milk) daily. Children ages 4-8 can meet their calcium needs with 2.5 cups of milk daily. If you have a kiddo who doesn’t prefer milk, not to worry. There are other ways to obtain calcium besides milk. You will just need to be a little more intentional with his calcium intake from other sources.
Note about Whole Milk: Whole milk is a great way for children age 12-24 months to meet their fat and calcium needs. Once children turn age 2, their fat needs decrease but their calcium requirements remain (2). Switching from whole-milk to low-fat milk at age 2 can be a convenient way for your child to continue to meet his calcium needs without interfering with his appetite and impacting his desire to eat a variety of other foods.
2 - Milk In-Between Meals = Kiddos Used to Snacking On Milk When A Little Hungry = Wants To Snack on Milk When A Little Hungry Overnight
Kiddos who graze throughout the day only feel a little bit of hunger at a time. They get a little hungry, they have a little snack. They get distracted and a little full, they stop eating. They get a little hungry, they grab their milk cup and drink it as they are building their blocks. They get a little full, they stop drinking. On the contrary, children who eat meals about 3 hours apart are able to get fully hungry in-between meals. They get hungry. They eat a meal. They get full, they stop. They get hungry again ~3 hrs later, they eat a snack. Repeat.
It is okay to feel a little bit hungry and not eat. It is okay for your kiddo to wait until he is fully hungry before he eats. And we want him to know this. This will not only help set him up for healthy eating habits throughout life, but it will also help him overnight when he wakes and his tummy feels a little bit hungry. If he is used to feeling that little twinge of hunger and not needing to eat, he will be able to go back to sleep. If he is a grazer and is used to eating or drinking milk any time he has a little twinge of hunger, he is going to feel like he needs to satisfy that before falling back to sleep.
My Recommendation: Include milk as part of your child’s meals and avoid milk in-between meals. How to do this...? Divide the daily recommended 2 cups of milk into 1 cup serving sizes and serve with breakfast and dinner. Or divide into ¾ cup serving sizes and serve with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Offer water with snacks and as often as desired for thirst throughout the day.
3 - Children Who Drink Milk Between 6PM-7AM Sleep Less At Night
Healthy children over the age of 1 who have adequate nutrition intake during the day do not need to eat or drink overnight. In fact, children who drink milk between 7PM-6AM sleep less at night (1). If your 2+ year old child is asking for milk or food in the middle of the night it is most likely out of habit.
Not only should you avoid milk overnight after your kiddo turns 1 year, but you should also move milk out of the bedroom at bedtime and naptimes. By age 1, all eating and drinking should be associated with meals. Eating should no longer coincide with sleeping. This can feel like a daunting task for kiddos who have a strong association between milk and falling asleep.
My Recommendation: If your kiddo is drinking milk as part of his bedtime routine but is not falling asleep while drinking, begin by offering milk directly before you begin bedtime routine. The drink should be in a cup (no more bottles after age 1!) and in the kitchen. You can then begin moving his evening milk 15 minutes earlier every 3-7 days until his final milk of the day is the milk you offer him with dinner.
Note: If you think your kiddo is actually hungry overnight, put your kiddo on a predictable eating schedule (about every 3 hours) to avoid grazing, serve milk with meals only, and limit milk to ~2 cups per day. If you eat an early dinner and feel your kiddo needs to eat prior to bedtime to hold him over through the night, consider offering a snack in the kitchen at the table before going upstairs for bed.
1 McDonald, L., et al. (2015). Sleep and nighttime energy consumption in early childhood: a population-based cohort study. Pediatric obesity, 10(6), 454–460.
2 Institute of Medicine (US) Committee to Review Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin D and Calcium; Ross AC, Taylor CL, Yaktine AL, et al., editors. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011. 5, Dietary Reference Intakes for Adequacy: Calcium and Vitamin D. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK56056/
Katie Ramirez, RN, BSN, CLC
Born Happy, Owner and Coach
Katie Ramirez is a Registered Nurse, Certified Lactation Counselor, and Coach for parents of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. She has spent more than a decade serving patients at major university hospitals such as Vanderbilt University and Penn State University Medical Centers. Katie now spends her time supporting and empowering parents of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers as owner and coach for Born Happy.
Katie is the proud mother of two beautiful children, Roberto (age 7), and Veronica (age 5). She has a passion for health, wellness, and happy children, and believes that, with the necessary knowledge and support, all parents can live happy.
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