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Top 5 Nutrients for Optimal Sleep

A nutrient is a substance that provides nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life. All children need specific nutrients in their system to achieve optimal sleep quality.

Deficiencies are widespread amongst children and this is predominantly a result from diets which are high in fat, sugar and salt. Additionally, the oral function for children is much weaker than it was hundreds of years ago due to the desires to eat soft and tender meats. This makes it harder for children to apply the ‘chew and swallow’ pattern, which further leads to fussy eating, resulting in nutritional deficiencies.

On top of this, deficiencies in particular nutrients can cause a change in the number, size and structure of taste bud cells, and decrease the nerve sensitivity. This induces a change in the taste of food, so when a cut of steak tastes nice to one, a child with nutritional deficiencies may think it tastes like metal, for example. This means a child will eat less, therefore consuming less nutrients. These factors further exacerbate deficiencies in children, and it becomes a big, vicious cycle.

Children need a range of nutrients in their diet to support sleep

Since our body cannot synthesize nutrients, they must be obtained through diet. Therefore, it is vital that your child is offered a wide-range of whole foods rich in nutrients to support consumption and absorption, and induce adequate sleep presentation.

Each nutrient has its own purpose and benefit to the bodily processes, and there are 5 leading nutrients which your child needs for their growth and development, and to achieve optimal sleep quality.

When there is a deficiency in a particular nutrient, this can truly negatively affect your child's sleep. It can alter their sleep quality, affect their sleep latency (how long it takes your child to fall asleep), trigger early morning waking, lead to night wakes and many other sleep disruptions.

To support your child's sleep, there are 5 top nutrients required, and these are:


Iron deficiency is prevalent amongst kids and has a negative impact on a child’s ability to sleep well. Iron enables the body to make haemoglobin and myoglobin, which are proteins in the red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs to all over the body and into the muscles. Adequate iron levels ensure your body is receiving sufficient oxygen, enabling your body to respond well to sleep.

Low iron makes the body feel tired, but sleepless. There are no written studies on how low iron truly impacts a child’s ability to sleep however, anecdotally through case-studies and working closely with clients, I have seen a presentation of low iron causing persistent early morning waking, delayed sleep onset or split nights.

Iron rich foods are:

  • Red meat

  • Legumes

  • Fortified cereals

  • Poultry

  • Egg

  • Leafy greens

  • Fish

You can read more about iron on the blog: Iron- The Super Nutrient


Tryptophan is an amino acid that isn’t discussed much, but is vital in a child’s diet for optimal sleep quality. Tryptophan enables the production of serotonin, which is super important because serotonin (our happy, awake neurotransmitter) is a precursor to melatonin, our sleeping neurotransmitter. Therefore, for optimal melatonin secretion and quality sleep, your child needs tryptophan in their diet. Tryptophan, like most nutrients, cannot be produced by the human body and so it must be obtained through consumption.

It is best to offer tryptophan foods in the morning; one study found that eating a breakfast rich in tryptophan can help with falling asleep faster and staying asleep longer.

Foods containing tryptophan:

  • Turkeys

  • Nuts

  • Bananas

  • Oats

  • Beans

  • Seeds

  • Tofu

  • Chicken

  • Red meat

  • Eggs

  • Dairy

  • Chickpeas

A range of whole-foods is vital for optimal sleep quality


Magnesium is responsible for supporting muscle, keeping blood sugar and blood pressure at the right balance, and the function of the nervous system. Since sleep is heavily regulated by the nervous system, it is believed that magnesium helps with the balance of sleep.

Restless sleep in children can be a result of a number of underlying factors, but one of those is a lack of magnesium in the diet. Low magnesium can lead to restless leg syndrome but also trigger insomnia like sleep presentations.

Although studies are still being conducted on how important magnesium is for optimal sleep performance, it is believed that magnesium is required for optimal sleep quality and duration. If you can ensure your child has adequate magnesium intake, it will help to relax and calm the body, preventing or ceasing restlessness.

Foods containing magnesium:

  • Green leafy vegetables

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

  • Fish

  • Beans

  • Whole grains

  • Avocados

  • Yoghurt

  • Bananas

  • Dried fruit


Zinc is an essential nutrient, meaning your body can’t produce it nor can it store it. Therefore, the body needs a constant daily consumption supply to keep up with its needs. Zinc helps to regulate sleep, and although it’s not clear exactly the role it plays with this, it appears to assist with deep sleep, when the physical restoration and memory consolidation occurs. And since the brain rejuvenates during sleep, we can understand that if there is a zinc deficiency, this can lead to a reduction in sleep quality.

Zinc also plays a part in transforming tryptophan into serotonin, as explained above under the role of Tryptophan. Although zinc doesn’t actually induce sleep, it does help with sleep latency, quantity, quality and efficiency. For a child with adequate zinc intake, we can see that healthy levels of zinc in the blood can assist with these 4 core aspects of sleep, avoiding poor sleep quality.

Foods containing zinc:

  • Oysters

  • Crab and lobster

  • Pork

  • Chickpeas and other legumes

  • Nuts

  • Oats

  • Seeds

  • Tofu


Protein which is a nutrient which our bodies need to grow and repair cells, so our body can function adequately. It is an essential nutrient, which means our body can’t naturally make it, and sufficient diet intake of protein is required to provide adequate protein throughout the body.

Proteins are actually make up of building blocks, which are known as amino acids. Our body uses more than 20 amino acids to create new proteins, enzymes and hormones and are used as an energy source, particularly when carbohydrate intake is low.

Protein is known to help us feel fuller for longer and can help stabilise our blood sugar levels too. With a sufficient balance of these two components, this can help reduce night wakes. By maintaining a healthy level of protein consumption, we can work towards better sleep performance and longer blocks of sleep.

Foods containing protein are:

  • Lean meats

  • Poultry

  • Fish

  • Eggs

  • Dairy products, such as cheese, milk and yoghurt

  • Soy based products

  • Cereal based products

  • Some grains

Ensure your child consumes these nutrients to support optimal sleep

There are many factors which need to be assessed and addressed to achieve health sleep presentations, and as you can see, offering a wide range of whole-foods to your child is one area which can be easily conquered.

However, one thing I want you to keep in mind, is the difference between consumption and absorption.

If your child has an amazing diet, eats well and consumes a range of the sleep supportive nutrients detailed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their body is sufficiently absorbing those nutrients.

If there is a history of antibiotic use, bouts of gastroenteritis, use of medications through your labor and delivery, food intolerances/allergies or wind and tummy pains, then your child's gut may not be absorbing these nutrients adequately. And it doesn’t matter how much they are consuming, absorption becomes the issue here.

If you suspect your child's diet is lacking these nutrients, or you are concerned about your child's nutritional intake and sleep presentation, please reach out. I'd love to help you! You can start with a free, no-obligation 15 minute Discovery Call

I have also created a Sleep and Nutrition PDF available for free download:

Nutrition PDF
Download PDF • 12.20MB

Shereen Nielsen

Senior Sleep Consultant

My name is Shereen Nielsen and I am a certified infant and child sleep consult, working with children aged birth to 12 years. I am also a lecturer and mentor for students on their journey towards becoming a Sleep Consultant, through my on-line internationally recognised sleep consultants course.

If you would like more information about my services, please contact me:

Phone: +61419820474

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