By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What’s the Big Deal About Addictions?
Mindfulness is a popular topic these days. It can be helpful for a variety of problems, including stress management, anxiety, chronic pain, and depression. Mindfulness is also a useful intervention for children with sleep problems. Up to 50 percent of children experience problems sleeping at some point in their lives. Kids who are fearful or have trouble dealing with stress often struggle with falling sleep, particularly if they are sleeping alone. Other kids may wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back asleep. Insomnia can also be a side effect of certain psychiatric medications or drinking caffeinated drinks. Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, can also make sleep more difficult and less restful.
Early identification of sleep issues is important, since it can help prevent associated problems such as daytime sleepiness, irritability, trouble controlling one’s behavior, and learning difficulties. It is hard to function at your best if you are sleep deprived. While the causes of sleep issues may differ, many children can benefit from learning to use mindfulness as a way of promoting good sleep.
What Is Mindfulness?
According to Psychology Today, mindfulness is a state of active, open attention to the present. This state is described as observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. Two key factors are involved: awareness and acceptance. Put simply, mindfulness involves noticing your thoughts and feelings in the present moment and accepting them for what they are without trying to get rid of them or fight them. While the origins of mindfulness draw from Buddhist and Hindu teachings, they are applicable to many situations.
A recent Stanford Medicine study found that elementary school children who participated in mindfulness training two times a week for two years slept an average of 74 extra minutes a night. That boost in total sleep time included an additional 24 minutes of rapid eye movement (REM), the dream stage of sleep when memories are consolidated and stored. Interestingly, this improvement occurred without specific training on sleep hygiene (good sleep habits). Yoga-based movement training was also helpful. The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, found that improvement in sleep began within three months of starting mindfulness training, and it increased with higher participation.
One theory as to why mindfulness helps with sleep is that teaching kids to manage their stress in healthy ways during the day helps them feel less anxious and stressed at night. In this study, children who reported using mindfulness more often slept more during the the study. This may be especially important for at-risk kids who experience more stress due to family and environmental factors.
Introducing Children to Mindfulness
One of the easiest ways to introduce mindfulness to children is to focus on breathing. This is often referred to as “belly breathing” or “square breathing.” The basic format is breathing in slowly to the count of five and out slowly to the count of five. Instructing kids to put their hands on their bellies when practicing can help, since the belly rises when breathing in and falls when breathing out. When we slow the breath and get more oxygen into the lungs, we feel a sense of relaxation. It can help to suggest to kids that as they breathe out, they imagine all the stress of the day leaving their body though their breath. Some kids enjoy picturing their stress as colored smoke that leaves their body when breathing out.
Listening to calming music is another way of practicing mindfulness. Focusing on the music while tuning out the rest of the world can be a great way to ease stress. Many kids (and adults) find it easier to sleep while listening to relaxing music.
Another technique that can be a form of mindfulness is guided imagery. This involves listening to someone describe an imaginary experience, such as walking on the beach, noticing sounds such as the wind or ocean waves and smells such as salty air and flowers. These activities help children focus on relaxing activities, rather than thinking about things that may cause them stress.
Many apps are available to help kids learn mindfulness, including mindfulness around sleep. Some also share free resources online. Examples include the following:
- MoshiKids offers a free 15-minute YouTube video as well as a paid version of their app. The video is described as the story of “a very tired koala on a melodic moonlit journey across the dreamy world of Moshi.”
- Relaxing Rainbows is another example of a sleep story for kids. The video is over an hour long, and the app can be downloaded as well.
- Apple podcasts offer various selections, with titles such as Sleepy Cottage, Shine Your Light, and Your Secret Treehouse.
- Mindful Family’s Simple Bedtime Meditations for Better Sleep offers multiple sleep meditations: https://orcd.co/mindfulnessforchildren.
- Kids Sleep Meditations: Mindfulness Meditations for Children to Fall Asleep, available on Amazon, comes in an audiobook format.
Other Mindfulness Techniques
If a child suffers from separation anxiety, parents can help by making recordings of themselves reading a mindfulness meditation so that their kids can listen to them when parents are not available or even after they have gone to bed. This can encourage kids to stay in bed, rather than waking up their parents.
The book Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel is a resource parents can use with their children. It includes simple mindfulness practices and comes with a CD as well. To introduce mindfulness to kids, the author gives the example of how frogs often stay perfectly still, noticing everything around them and saving up their energy for when they need it. By imagining themselves acting like frogs, observing their surroundings in a curious way, kids can learn to do the same.
Another example of promoting relaxation is “The Spaghetti Test.” This involves imagining that your body is like a stiff, uncooked piece of spaghetti that softens as it cooks, until it becomes limp and relaxed. Tensing and relaxing different parts of the body is another way to achieve a relaxed state.
The Importance of Practicing and Modeling
As with any other skill, learning to be mindful takes practice. By practicing, your brain learns to start a process faster because it knows what to do. So encourage children to practice mindfulness throughout the day, not just at bedtime. Good times to practice include first thing in the morning while waking up, before going to school, and before starting homework. Even a few minutes of practice during the daytime can make mindfulness more effective when you really need it to work at bedtime.
You can also practice mindfulness with children. They will likely be more open to mindfulness if you do the exercises with them, and it may help you lower your stress as well!
Good Sleep Hygiene Is Also Important
Of course, mindfulness does not replace the importance of good sleep hygiene. Avoiding electronic devices for at least an hour before bedtime is recommended. Keeping lights low, using a white noise machine (such as a fan), and keeping the sleeping area cool all facilitate good sleep. Regular exercise also helps, though not right before bedtime. Try to have your child use their bed only for sleeping, so their brain associates their bed with sleeping, rather than for entertainment or doing homework.
Keeping to a regular sleep schedule helps regulate sleep patterns. Monitor your child’s diet, since settling down for the night may be harder if they consume too much sugar. Some kids find that reading before going to sleep helps calm them and makes it easier for them to fall asleep.
Melatonin is a hormonal supplement that can help people fall asleep more easily. Our brains release melatonin when it gets dark. Bright lights, including the blue light that many electronic devices emit, can suppress the production of melatonin, making sleep more difficult. Not all physicians recommend using melatonin with children, which is why it is wise to check with your child’s pediatrician first. They can also help rule out other possible causes of sleep problems, such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome.
When More Help Is Needed
While mindfulness and sleep hygiene techniques can be very helpful, they do not work for everyone. If your child’s sleep problems do not respond, or are causing issues in other areas, seeking professional help is wise. Treatment for underlying mental health issues may be needed.
Dr. James J. Crist is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center (CFCC) in Woodbridge, Virginia, and a substance abuse counselor, working with addictive disorders in teens and adults. At CFCC, he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults, specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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