How Your Child’s Behavior is Tied to Food and Sleep

When your child is having a tantrum, be sure he isn’t tired or hungry before moving to correcting behavior. You child might just need a nap and a snack.

Child having a tantrum

Often times we parents get upset or impatient with our children unfairly.

There are times they are grumpy or throwing little fits. We get frusrated, but in reality, it is all our fault.

“…how a pretoddler behaves during the time he is awake often depends on how well-rested and well-fed he is”.

(On Becoming Pre-Toddlerwise, page 43)

It always amazes me to watch parents with their children when I am out late at night. It will be 9 PM in the grocery store.

The child is crying. The parent is saying something to the effect of “Why are you crying?” or threatening the child’s life if the behavior doesn’t stop.

I would be willing to bet that if the child were at the store at a time of day when the child should be awake, there would be a lot less crying. 

Of course a child out at 9 PM will be tired and grumpy.

Tantrums Happen When a Child is Tired or Hungry

If you are having behavior issues, it is always wise to first stop and think about food and sleep.

If your child is throwing a fit or seems off, ask yourself how food and rest are going.

Is it time for your child to be asleep? Or is your child not getting enough sleep?

Is it time for a meal or snack?

If you are saying yes to any of these questions, then rather than considering what discipline tactics you need to try next, simply put the child to bed or feed her

I have said this in the past, but a tired child needs sleep, not discipline.

A hungry child needs food, not discipline.

These simple facts are a huge reason why having a solid routine each day is so beneficial in your life and your child’s life.

Most -wise children do really well behaviorally most of the time. Most -wise children get enough sleep at night consistently as well as naps regularly. They also get regular meals and snack time each day. 

Think about yourself.

How well do you function when you are tired? How patient are you?

Any mom who has had a toddler and a newborn at the same time quickly recognizes that a tired mom is a grumpy mom. I don’t like taking naps myself, but when I had a newborn in the house, I forced myself to for the sake of my family. I was a more patient and happy person when I had my sleep.

And how well do you do when you are hungry? How patient are you?

The term “hangry” exists for a reason.

Some people handle hunger better than others. I know that when I am hungry, it really has little impact on my mood. I will get quieter, but not less patient. My husband, however, has less patience when he is hungry.

I see variances in my children. Brayden’s behavior is not highly impacted by hunger, but Kaitlyn is really like a different person when she is hungry. 

Our church is currently at 9. At 10, I give Kaitlyn a small snack so she will be able to remain happy until the end of church. I do this as a courtesy to her primary teachers and the students in her class. Brayden, however, doesn’t need a snack at all to get through the morning. He does just fine without it.

So get to know your child and plan ahead if your child is one for whom food is an important consideration. Carry snacks with you. 

A final thought, just because the child doesn’t necessarily need discipline when food and sleep are a factor, it doesn’t mean the child should be allowed to behave with fits.

Use your judgment. I say things like, “I know you are tired. I am sorry you are tired. But that doesn’t mean it is okay for you to be throwing a fit.” Or more often, “I know you are hungry, but that doesn’t mean you get to scream and cry. I am getting you some food and I need you to be patient.”

I don’t do anything more than that, but I am making it clear that we need to be kind and control ourselves even if we don’t feel amazing. 


Children need to learn to control themselves even in the face of hunger and fatigue, but keep in mind they are children, not perfection, and it will be very hard for them. Controlling oneself even in the face of discomfort is a great skill to gain, but it will take much time and also maturity to achieve.

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5 thoughts on “How Your Child’s Behavior is Tied to Food and Sleep”

  1. Lately our 16-month-old son has been throwing "mini-fits" in the mornings while we are trying to feed him breakfast. He'll act starving, then scream and cry when we try to feed him, and will even scream and cry if we let him feed himself. He'll cry for 90% of the meal, then towards the end, when his tummy is getting full, he'll seem fine and start behaving. I am not sure how to handle this situation since I believe he is acting up because of how hungry he is, yet he's throwing fits while trying to eat. It's hard to know how to discipline. Have you ever heard of a similar situation, or do you have any advice? Thanks!

  2. I don't have experience with that, but I have to wonder if you fed him some milk before he started eating if that would help take the edge off for him?I would also wonder if teeth could be coming in and causing him pain.

  3. my lo just turned 12 months and we just started babywise and pre toddler wise. Does anyone else have experience starting these methods late or have any words of encouragement?

    • Missymoo, I obviously don't have experience starting late–you can definitely join the chronicles google group and get insight there. I would start with having regular times for meals, regular times for naps, and regular times for bed and for waking up. Just start with the basics.

  4. My 17-month-old recently dropped to one nap a day with daylight savings. This is because she would be awake now from 715 to noon and again 2/230 to 730. Recently she has transition back to waking around six. When she does she is too tired to stay awake until noon but if I put her down for a nap at 11 she wakes around one and is too cranky to stay awake until 730. Any suggestions? If I her bedtime to 630 then she hardly has any time with that. Also she is in daycare two days a week and they would like her to nap at one with the rest of the toddlers. We transition to one nap a day because she was resisting her afternoon nap.


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