Foods to Avoid for Better Sleep

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For many kids with special needs, a close look at the diet is important for a better nigh’s rest. The gut and brain are very closely connected. If something is in the digestive system that shouldn’t be there, it’s going to cause ripple effects (learn more here). But, diet is often not even considered when it comes to sleep!

So, if your child with special needs is having difficulty sleeping well, consider reducing or eliminating the following foods from their diet:


It comes as no surprise that when kids have too much sugar, they will get very hyper and then crash. For a child with special needs, they feel the effects of sugar even more. Foods with too much sugar not only cause hyperactivity, but affects the following:

  • Increases stress hormones, making it harder to wind down to sleep.
  • Feeds bad yeast and bacteria in the gut, causing gas, bloating, discomfort, and more.
  • Increases body temperature, making it harder to fall asleep.

For some kids, just removing sugar and artificial sweeteners is enough. However, if your child deals with too much energy, hyperactivity, etc. during the day reducing natural sweeteners is advisable as well.

If you’re trying to reduce or remove sugar from your child’s diet, be sure to avoid candies, cookies, chocolate (see below), soft drinks, juices, energy drinks (goodness gracious), and other baked goods.


Now, if you’ve taken sugar out of your child’s diet chances are that chocolate isn’t making a big appearance either. But, what many people forget is that chocolate contains caffeine. So, when paired with sugar chocolate can be a sleep destroyer for your child. The amount of caffiene isn’t nearly as high as a cup of coffee, but children feel the effects of it much more than we do.

Processed, salty foods

If a food package has words that you have a hard time pronouncing, it’s probably best to steer clear. Foods with additives/preservatives have been linked to increased hyperactivity in kids. So, if your child is getting these foods consistently, it will certainly make going to sleep a lot more difficult. And, chances are that these foods will contain sugar as well, which can lead to a host of digestive issues.

In addition, when a child’s diet is packed with salt/sodium this also leads to water retention. This can lead to more frequent wake ups for the bathroom or accidents. Although salt leaves the body through the urine, it takes calcium and other vital minerals out of the body. Calcium in particular is needed to help the brain make melatonin, the hormone needed for sleep.


Milk, cheese, yogurts, etc. that come from animal’s milk can be hard for the body to digest and for many people causes stomach discomfort. In my experience, for many kids with special needs it can also cause constipation, diarrhea, reflux, etc. Dairy products contain lactose, which is another type of sugar. So, no wonder it causes stomach upset!

Fortunately, there are tons of great non-dairy options for milks, cheeses, etc. that are now widely available.

Wheat and gluten

Similarly to dairy, having too much wheat and gluten can cause minor or major stomach upset for many children with neurodevelopmental issues. It can also feed bad yeast and bacteria in the gut which causes a host of other digestive problems, as mentioned above.

Now I know what you’re thinking…

You’ve just told me to take out all the foods that my child eats! What do I feed him now?!

I know. But, you DON’T have to reduce or eliminate ALL of these foods at the same time. So, have no fear!

My recommendation would be to start with one of the foods listed above. Pick one and focus on taking this out. Observe your child. What changes do you see with sleep, or during the day?

Begin by taking that one food out after lunch time. This allows the body enough time to digest, process, and eliminate before bedtime. Do your best to replace the above foods with healthy alternatives like fruits, nuts and nut butter, crackers, rice cakes, etc. If your child is not taking to it at first, it’s okay. These are changes for everyone and will take some time to adjust.

Then, keep phasing the food out until it’s gone completely.

Another approach is to try removing all or most of the foods listed above after lunch time. This is a bit more challenging, but one step that many of my parents see as good for their child’s sleep.

And, follow your gut — very often parents know that their child has a problem with one, some, or all of the foods listed above. It’s not an easy change to take these things out of the diet. But, if that means that your child with special needs will have an easier night’s rest it’s definitely an important step to take for the whole family!

Ready to get your child with special needs sleeping great? Melissa Doman and her team help kids with autism, cerebral palsy, Trisomy 21, ADD/ADHD, and developmental delays get the sleep they need.

Schedule a free discovery call with us today!