When it comes to getting our babies to sleep longer and better, we all fantasize about a “silver bullet” solution — something that would provide instant results with minimal effort and little cost. If only it were that easy! Any sleepy parent can tell you, though, that there is no silver bullet when it comes to getting your baby to sleep.
Or is there?
Recently, a client e-mailed to let us know how she got her 6 month old breast-fed baby sleeping through the night and taking long, restorative naps. Her secret? Magnesium supplements (for mom). Other clients have cited iron supplements as the solution to their babies’ sleep problems. We here at Baby Sleep Site were intrigued. Could magnesium and iron supplements be the silver bullets parents have been longing for?
What are Magnesium and Iron? What Do They Do For Our Bodies?
Let’s start with what these minerals are and how they work. Magnesium is the 4th most abundant mineral in the human body, and it plays quite a large role in a person’s overall health. It is an essential part of more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body and is thought to be key in preventing high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
Iron is another vital mineral in our bodies. Iron is vital to the transport of oxygen throughout the body. It is also a key element in a number of cell functions as well as cell growth.
How Do We Get Magnesium and Iron In Our Diets?
Natural sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, certain beans and nuts (like almonds), and whole, unrefined grains, like wheat. Tap water (particularly “hard” tap water) can also be a source of magnesium. Iron occurs naturally in both plant and animal sources. Animal sources include red meats, poultry, and a variety of fish. Plant sources include many types of beans, tofu, and green, leafy vegetables like spinach. Iron-fortified foods (such as breakfast cereals) are also a good source of iron.
While it’s best to get your magnesium and iron from natural food sources, these minerals are also available in supplement form.
How Much Magnesium and Iron Do We Need? What About Our Babies?
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of magnesium for adult men is around 400 mg/day, while the dosage for adult women is closer to 300 mg/day. The RDA for infants and young children is much lower. RDAs for iron vary greatly depending on age (infants age 7 – 12 months need large amounts of iron) and medical condition (pregnant women have much higher iron needs than women who aren’t pregnant.)
When considering these numbers, remember that they’re very general guidelines. We’re not recommending dosages in this article, simply because your child’s age and medical history, as well as any medications he may be taking, will impact how much magnesium and iron he should consume. If you’re considering a supplement for your toddler, or if you’re a nursing mom who’s thinking about taking a supplement yourself, talk to a health care provider. Both magnesium supplements and iron supplements should be administered to children only under the supervision of a licensed health care provider.
What If We Don’t Get Enough Magnesium or Iron?
Even though these minerals are so vital to good health, many of us don’t get enough of them. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 80% of Americans don’t get enough magnesium in their diets. This is due in large part to poor diet. Sleeplessness and high levels of stress, as well as certain medications, also contribute to magnesium deficiency, since they actually flush magnesium from the body.
Iron deficiency (called iron deficiency anemia, or IDA) is a serious health complication. IDA is the number one nutritional deficiency worldwide and is especially dangerous for children and pregnant women. The most common IDA symptom is fatigue. IDA can also cause dizziness, shortness of breath, pale skin, cold hands and feet, and chest pain.
What Do Magnesium and Iron Have To Do With Sleep?
Magnesium has been called “nature’s muscle relaxant.” It calms the central nervous system and acts as a sedative. Magnesium actually suppresses nerve activity, which leads to a decrease in muscle twitches and jerks, therefore decreasing incidents of night waking. For these reasons, healthy levels of magnesium have been linked to deep, undisturbed sleep. Consequently, low levels of magnesium can contribute to frequent nighttime wakings. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to several insomnia-inducing conditions, including restless leg syndrome (RLS) and night terrors.
Low levels of iron have also been linked to sleep issues. A 2010 study indicates that IDA in infants can caused altered brain patterns that lead to disrupted sleep. IDA has also been linked to RLS and sleep apnea, two conditions known to cause insomnia. All of this research suggests that having healthy levels of iron in the bloodstream contributes to deeper, more restorative sleep for both children and adults.
Should We Give Our Babies Supplements To Help Them Sleep Better?
It’s important to remember that most of the findings mentioned here are based on research performed on adults and older children. Magnesium and iron affect the human body in specific ways, so it follows that if those minerals help adults sleep well, they will likely help babies and toddlers sleep well, too. However, little research has been performed on infants and toddlers to indicate if that’s the case.
Some mothers (like the one who e-mailed us) have had success in either taking a magnesium and/or iron supplement themselves (while breastfeeding) or giving a supplement to their young toddlers. Nursing mothers may even experience an added benefit: a calcium/magnesium supplement has been shown to help with low milk supply during menstruation.
However, the fact remains that there is NO true “silver bullet” when it comes to baby sleep. Remember that no vitamin or mineral will overcome a baby’s bad sleep habits and help her learn brand-new, good ones. If your child has formed sleep associations, a dietary supplement won’t help her overcome them! Magnesium and iron supplements may be a tool to add to your arsenal, but we recommend that you educate yourself about baby sleep patterns and schedules and work to lay a good foundation of healthy sleep habits for your baby.
Office of Dietary Supplements (a branch of the National Institute of Health)
Health Supplements Nutritional Guide
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
While The Baby Sleep Site® publishes what we consider to be safe tips and suggestions, all The Baby Sleep Site® content is made available on an as-is basis, with no warranties expressed or implied. This publication is not intended for use as a source of medical advice and we encourage communication with your baby’s doctor, particularly for information on dietary supplements.