When it comes to healthy bedtime snacks, what is a good choice? How do you even know if your child needs a bedtime snack? There are several things to consider!
Does Your Child Need a Bedtime Snack?
Before we get to some bedtime snack options, let's talk about when young kids might need one to begin with.
One of the best ways to help kids, and younger children especially, with eating is to have a meal and snack schedule. It's not about being rigid, but instead about having a predictable flow to your day. That flow really can help kids to be able to forget about food, and to eat the amount that they need.
By around 12-18 months, that schedule is usually going to include 3 meals and 2 snacks. But some kids need an additional third snack. That usually comes in as a bedtime snack. But when should you add that?
When to Offer Bedtime Snacks
Here are a few times when offering a bedtime snack is a good idea:
- It is longer than 45 minutes between when your child usually finishes dinner and goes to bed.
- Your child isn't usually hungry around your dinner time and doesn't eat much.
- When dinner isn't eaten, your child has trouble sleeping through the night.
- Your child has a relevant medical diagnosis or your child's growth has faltered and you need a time to offer them some extra calories to meet their nutritional needs.
When a Bedtime Snack Isn't Needed
On the opposite side of things, here are some times when a bedtime snack is not a great idea:
- Dinner is done less than 45 minutes before bedtime and there's not enough time in between. Even if they don't eat their dinner! (There are other ways to help in this instance. Check out the toddler course Mastering Mealtimes for help here!)
- Your child isn't eating their dinner, but they front load their calories and eat most of their food earlier in the day.
- Your child still gets a good night's sleep even if they don't eat much dinner.
Toddler Sleep and Bedtime Snacks
One of the biggest reasons I hear for giving bedtime snacks is out of fear that a child will have a tough time sleeping through the night. The fear of your child not having a large meal right before bed, and going to bed on an empty stomach is a real one!
And while sometimes that does happen, more often than not a child waking up is not related to a need for late night snacks! It is usually related to poor sleep quality and not having good sleep habits.
When you think about sleep and adults or the rest of the family, most people do not wake up because they are hungry. They wake up and then decide that they're hungry. Or that the best way to help themselves get back to sleep is to eat.
But the hunger is not what is actually causing them to wake up!
So with that in mind, the best thing for middle of the night hunger is not usually a bedtime snack. It is working on setting up a good foundation for sleep.
Make Snack Time a Regular Habit
If your child is one of the ones that does seem to have a hard time making it a long time between dinner and breakfast and needs a bed time snack, make sure you are consistent with it.
Make it a regular part of their bedtime routine. Don't just offer it in response to them not eating a dinner. Offer it as a part of your routine. Not in response to them eating or not.
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The Best Bedtime Snacks for Kids
It can be really tempting to offer lots of fun foods for a bedtime snack after dinner. After all, that is when we usually have dessert! But from my experience as a registered dietitian, that more often than not backfires!
Giving a high sugar snack like ice cream or granola bars can make bedtime snacks exciting for kids. And exciting is not what we're going for!
Think of bedtime snacks as a great way to fill nutritional gaps. But make it boring! When you offer a fun snack consistently, it makes your child much more likely to skip dinner for it.
After all, if your child thinks that a good snack is always going to be offered at bedtime, why would they fill themselves up at dinner?
Instead focus on some of the more boring options you can think of. And save the sugary snacks like chocolate milk and gummy fruit snacks that kids love for their afternoon snack.
As a final note about some of these more fun snacks, it is best to save them for once your child is two. The American Academy of Pediatrics as well as many other organizations recommend avoiding sugar under two whenever possible.
If you do decide to offer some occasionally, keep your child's oral health in mind when they are eating close to bedtime. Ensure that you are brushing their teeth after the snack if it is a part of their bedtime routine!
Healthy Snacks Options for Bedtime
Now you know that boring snacks are a great way to help little tummies make it between dinner and breakfast time. But what would be a good option?
My go-to recommendations for good bedtime snacks include whole grains like whole wheat bread or whole grain crackers. The complex carbohydrates in them help your child to make it longer between eating opportunities. Even if they are only eating small amounts!
Other great options include full fat dairy like a glass of milk, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, or a cheese stick or slice of cheese. These are other nutrient dense options that can help them make it awhile between meals, without being exciting.
Whether you are doing a grain, dairy food, or other nutrient dense snack, I usually will add a fresh fruit like apple slices or a vegetable to it as well. This helps round out the snack and give them a good source of fiber.
Here are some go-to combinations for a simple snack that I recommend for young children:
- Peanut butter toast and piece of fruit
- Greek yogurt and berries
- Peas and cottage cheese
- Slices of cheese and apple slices
- Nut butter spread on apple or pears
- Leftover dinner foods from a previous day
- Whole-grain crackers and nut butter or cheese with a piece of fruit
These are by no means the only snack options out there for bedtime. But hopefully they are a good place to get you started if you decide to incorporate a bedtime snack into your routine.
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