When It Comes to Perfecting Newborns’ Sleep, Is Consistent Eating Time the Key?

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New babies are an endless source of joy and a seemingly endless source of sleepiness nights. And while most parenting advice looks something like “don’t wish it away,” “enjoy it while it lasts,” and “it won’t be like this forever,” it all hits different (and maybe falls on deaf ears) when all-nighters are your new SOP. But things may be looking up, moms and dads. Newly published research may offer some real solutions for the sleep-deprived among you — and the answer may lie in the regularity of feeding. 

With the understanding that the irregularity associated with infant sleep-wake patterns may be influenced by their diet — more specifically, their gut microbiota, researchers out of Switzerland hypothesized that higher eating regularity is associated with more mature sleep patterns. (1

To explore their theories, the researchers recruited 162 healthy infants born through vaginal deliveries and whose diet was at least 50 percent breast milk. The researchers evaluated sleep-wake patterns (through actigraphy results), eating times (for which they developed an Eating Regularity Index (ERI), and stool microbiota of the infants at three distinct points in time: 3, 6, and 12 months. They also relied on parental documentation of additional data points, like sleep/wake phases, movement interventions during sleep (i.e., being in a stroller), phases of crying, and the timing of when meals began and ended. (1)

After combing through the data, the researchers found that: 

  • An increased eating regularity (higher ERI) in infants is associated with less sleep fragmentation and more regular sleep patterns. 
  • The link between eating regularity and mature sleep patterns isn’t linked to the maturity of gut microbiota. 
  • The associations between eating regularity and sleep continue to evolve with age. 
  • The link between infant sleep and ERI remains significant even when parents structure their infant’s eating and sleeping times. 

Regarding the role that breastmilk may play, Salome Kurth, Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Fribourg and member of the research team, shared that “studies suggest breastfeeding cessation impacts gut microbiota composition and that breastfeeding is linked to more night wakings.” (2) (3) And while they included infants who were primarily breastfed at the time of study enrollment, that variable was not studied. Kurth notes, “Whether these observations relate to each other remains to be investigated.”

How Do Developing Circadian Rhythms Factor In? 

Existing literature tells us that cortisol and melatonin production begin around eight weeks, and circadian rhythms are established somewhere around 11 weeks — and all of the above were not lost on the team. (4)

In the paper, they wrote, “The age-dependent effect of Eating Regularity Index on sleep timing and consolidation might also be explained by the evolution of circadian rhythm as a developmental transition.” (1)

Regarding circadian rhythms and how they factor into the research, Kurth tells us it’s not quite that black and white. She says, “The maturation of sleep needs to be considered from the perspective of circadian “clock-dependent” and homeostatic “sleep-wake-dependent” regulators of sleep — as these two processes interact to determine the likelihood of falling asleep.” (5)

Kurth explains that the consolidation of sleep and waking hours is noticeable and gradual across infancy and early childhood. “The development of the circadian system is also gradual. It begins during prenatal stages and supports the establishment of sleep-wake patterns and hormone secretion typically occurring around the age of two months,” she says. (6) “The first few weeks of life represent a sensitive window of circadian programming. And as mentioned above, besides the infants’ circadian maturation, the homeostatic sleep regulators undergo significant development during the initial months of life.”  

Ultimately, Kurth says that by assessing infant sleep patterns at critical junctures (3, 6, and 12 months of life), “Our study captures transitions of sleep across this period and accounts for both — circadian and homeostatic sleep regulators.”

So What Does This Mean For Parents Looking For Some Shuteye?

The TLDR: Infants who eat more regularly have more mature sleep patterns, and gut microbiota doesn’t influence either. According to the researchers, parents may be able to improve infant sleep quality by boosting their infant’s eating regularity.

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  • 1. Mühlematter C, Nielsen DS, Castro-Mejía JL, Brown SA, Rasch B, Wright KP Jr, et al. (2023) Not simply a matter of parents—Infants’ sleep-wake patterns are associated with their regularity of eating. PLoS ONE 18(10): e0291441. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0291441

  • 2. Bergström A, Skov TH, Bahl MI, et al. Establishment of intestinal microbiota during early life: a longitudinal, explorative study of a large cohort of Danish infants. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2014;80(9):2889-2900. doi:10.1128/AEM.00342-14

  • 3. Galbally, M., Lewis, A.J., McEgan, K., Scalzo, K. and Islam, F.A. (2013), Breastfeeding and infant sleep. J Paediatr Child Health, 49: E147-E152. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpc.12089

  • 4. Yates J. PERSPECTIVE: The Long-Term Effects of Light Exposure on Establishment of Newborn Circadian Rhythm. J Clin Sleep Med. 2018;14(10):1829-1830. Published 2018 Oct 15. doi:10.5664/jcsm.7426

  • 5. Borbély AA, Daan S, Wirz-Justice A, Deboer T. The two-process model of sleep regulation: a reappraisal. J Sleep Res. 2016;25(2):131-143. doi:10.1111/jsr.12371

  • 6. Wong SD, Wright KP Jr, Spencer RL, et al. Development of the circadian system in early life: maternal and environmental factors. J Physiol Anthropol. 2022;41(1):22. Published 2022 May 16. doi:10.1186/s40101-022-00294-0

Sharon Brandwein

Sharon Brandwein

Sharon Brandwein is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and a freelance writer. She specializes in health and beauty, parenting, and of course, all things sleep. Sharon’s work has also appeared on ABC News, USAToday, and Forbes. When she’s not busy writing, you might find her somewhere curating a wardrobe for her puppy.

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