Before I go ahead and share this post, let me just start by saying that I am by no means a doctor or research scientist. I am a certified sleep consultant who has a passion and fascination with everything sleep-related.

Today I wanted to focus on something less researched yet extremely interesting to any person who at some point has had a restless baby.

When someone comes to me saying that they have a “restless” baby, I usually run through a checklist of what the possible causes could be. The list includes sleep props which include feeding to sleep (breastfeeding / bottle feeding right before sleep), rocking or carrying a baby to sleep, pushing baby in a stroller, sleeping in a carrier or even giving baby a pacifier.

More often than not, sleep props (dependencies your baby uses to fall asleep) end up being the cause of the struggle to settle into sleep. Once the sleep prop issue has been addressed, it usually only takes a few nights for babies to figure out how to do it without all that help, and sleep issues are a welcomed thing of the past.

But with all the families I have worked with, I happen to see that there is something beyond the dependency on the sleep prop. Some babies are, just more restless than others! These babies tend to move around more while they’re asleep and they have a harder time falling asleep and reaching that deep, restorative sleep than most of their counterparts.

So the theory I’m about to share with you is something I first heard about in 2019, at a World Sleep Conference and it really sparked an interest in me.

As adults, we all know what iron is and the important role it plays in our lives. We know that this mineral is essential as it supports the correct functioning of our circulatory system by helping red blood cells carry oxygen throughout our bodies. 

But even though we know this, iron deficiency or Anemia is still one of the most common deficiencies in the world today. The majority of cases can be found in developed nations including  Europe, North America. Studies have shown that doctor visits where anemia was the primary diagnosis amounts to around 2.8 million per year.

So, you can see, there is a huge amount of people that are just not getting the amount of iron they need!

I’m guessing you’re wondering what this has to do with restless babies? 

For breastfed babies, the iron levels that had previously been sustaining them dwindle from supply around 6 months of age.  Isn’t it also interesting that around that time babies transition to starting solids…

Now if you’re following health news, you would have heard about something called RLS or Restless Leg Syndrome. If not, RLS is just what it sounds like – it is a condition where people just can’t resist the urge to move their legs and is usually accompanied by uncomfortable “tingling” sensations in their legs as well. RLS is also know as Willis-Ekbom Disease. The best way to get rid of this feeling is to stand up and start moving your legs, but alas this is just a temporary solution. In addition, those suffering from RLS usually find it happens more often during periods when they are asleep or lying down.

Even with all the research, the real cause of RLS is still much of a mystery. According to the National Institute of Health, “In most cases, the cause of RLS is unknown. However, RLS has a genetic component and can be found in families where the onset of symptoms is before age 40. Specific gene variants have been associated with RLS. Evidence indicates that low levels of iron in the brain also may be responsible for RLS.”

So getting to my point, could those babies who seem more restless than most actually be suffering from something similar to RLS?

I know, it could be a bit of a leap between the two subjects and there is still so much research that needs to be done.

During my research, I came across two studies that could prove the theory. The first one was conducted by the University of Southern Illinois and the Carle Clinic Association and they found that 1.9% of children and 2% of adolescents were found to have RLS. In the second study carried out in 2020 by the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute and entitled “Iron Deficiency and Sleep – A Scoping Review”, it was discovered that using iron to treat a few sleep disorders including RLS showed success. The data was collected from a small group so the results are not significant enough to prove the theory, but it is still a good indication that iron can play a factor in the quality of sleep.

But RLS diagnosis isn’t as straightforward as other conditions. There are no tests to measure significant increases or decreases in proteins etc, it is usually diagnosed by a doctor and is based on the symptoms described by the patient. 

So, as you might have guessed, babies can’t be treated because they are unable to verbalise their symptoms.

According to a Mayo Clinic study conducted in 2005, “almost 6 percent of children seen in Mayo’s sleep clinic have the disease. The study also notes that the most common risk factors for the disease in kids are family history of restless legs syndrome and iron deficiency.”

So back to the theory raised at the sleep convention. One of the speakers at the conference shared the theory that babies could be suffering from RLS or rather a variant of it and this could cause some babies to be more restless than others.

More research is definitely needed in Restless Sleep Disorder but evidence does suggest that this could be an early variant of RLS which could be due to the iron levels in babies. Or as researchers have stated, “We have characterized clinically and polysomnographically children with RSD and attempted a new diagnostic category. We also have identified an association between RDS and iron deficiency. Future larger studies are needed to confirm these findings and evaluate the natural progression of restless sleepers.”

I am again reminding you that I am not offering medical advice. I was just fascinated by this topic and what I had researched and thought I’d share it with you. 

So, if your little one tends to be “more” restless during sleep, it wouldn’t hurt to chat to your paediatrician and have them check your baby’s iron levels. This may not be the cause of their sleepless nights, but addressing low iron levels early on is something you’d want to do.

The journey to Sleep

Alternatively – you could take extra care when preparing your child’s meals and be sure to include sources of food rich in iron, such as: 

  • Lean beef
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Leafy greens (spinach, kale)
  • Lentils
  • Beans 
  • Peas 
  • Chickpeas 
  • Quinoa 
  • Broccoli 
  • Tofu
  • Fish – Tuna, Haddock, Mackerel, Sardines

And if you are one of the parents whose child depends on a “sleep prop” and you’re ready to solve that problem once and for all, I am here to help you through that journey. I can assure you that it may not be as easy as giving your little one an iron supplement, but I can guarantee you that it will be worth all the effort in the end!