I once read in PA Today, the magazine for physician assistants, that sleep patterns are the number one concern for parents of young children, ages two to six. This tends to be especially true for working parents. They want to spend as much time with their kids as possible, so they abandon a regular bedtime schedule. But it can be a problem with anybody.
As I’ve mentioned several times before, kids need structure, and it’s certainly true in this area. Young children need a set bedtime to feel secure, even if that bedtime is later than you think it should be, and it should be as to the same every night, even on weekends.
Most parents have some sort of ritual with stories and songs that signals to the child it’s time to settle down and go to sleep. After the ritual is over, however, you have to be absolutely consistent about leaving the room and expecting them to go to sleep. Unfortunately, this means you may have to take them by the hand and lead them back to bed about a hundred times at first while you establish the schedule. One pediatrician suggested you don’t talk to them at all as you’re taking them back to bed. Hopefully, if you are calm and consistent but don’t talk to them, no matter how many times you have to repeat the routine, eventually they will learn you are serious, that you won’t be drawn into a power play to prolong the inevitable.
Along with a regular bedtime, there are four gentle techniques I used that helped a restless child relax enough to sleep. I’ll talk about the first one on this blog and the other three in the next one:
There was a wonderful little book called Starbright: Meditations for Children by Maureen Graf that may be out of print now. This book described ways to help your child think about pleasant topics until they drop off to sleep. You begin by saying, “I’m going to tell you a story. Close your eyes so you can see the pictures in your mind.” Then in a quiet, soothing voice you tell them to notice their breathing a while until they seem more relaxed. “Now we’re going to go into a beautiful garden. But right outside the walls of the garden is a big tree. This is the Worry Tree. If there’s anything that’s worrying you or making you feel bad, hang it on the tree so you don’t take it into the garden with you.” Then describe what your child would consider a lovely spot. Maybe she can help you be describing what she sees in the garden.
All this calms her down and makes her more relaxed. When you judge the time is right, you can tell her one of several “stories” that she can continue to think about after you have left the room. These scenarios include her becoming very, very small so she is down among the blades of grass and meets a family of ants. The mother ant has an apron and the father wears a hat and the kids wear either ribbons or baseball caps. They greet her enthusiastically and take her to their home. The ant children show her their special toys, and you can use your imagination about what they all do together. After a few minutes of this, say, “I’m going to leave for a while. You keep thinking about the ants and what fun things they do, and I’ll be back in 10 minutes.” Be sure you do return in 10 minutes--set an alarm or something. Usually, she will be sound asleep in that time, but if she isn’t, keep talking about what it is like down among the blades of grass, then again say you will leave for a while but will be back in 10 minutes. It’s amazing how often this works.
Another scenario is to have her imagine shrinking again and a beautiful bird comes down, takes her up on his back, and flies with her up to the clouds. Describe what it’s like high above the earth, and how everything looks different. Again talk about what kinds of games little birds play that can fly through the sky. Or have the bird take her through a rainbow where everything is colorful and sparkly.
If she isn’t comfortable being small, have her imagine getting bigger and bigger until she towers over all the houses and makes friends of the tallest trees and wears the clouds in her hair.
With Active Boys
I used to do this guided meditation with my very active young son, and it was especially helpful after he started school and had all sorts of stress at night. It was important we always stopped at the worry tree and left his worries there before we entered the garden. His favorite scenario was entering a huge old tree that had many rooms. Each room had something special--one had all kinds of good food, another had all the videos he could imagine, another had a pile of legos, another had toys he didn’t have but wanted, like detective toys, another had live action figures like superheroes or cowboys or knights that all wanted him to come join in their adventures. He spent many nights imagining himself in the different rooms of that tree, and it always calmed him down so he went to sleep faster and easier.
You can begin using this technique as soon as they understand what you say, by two or three years old. The important things to remember are to always use a soothing voice, have them pay attention to their breathing for a while, leave their worries at the worry tree, describe the garden, then get them going on their own fantasy. This gives them something enjoyable to think about and seems to make it easier to fall asleep. I think it lessened the number of nightmares they experienced as well. Tell them you’re leaving and to continue to think about their “story” until you come back in 10 minutes. It reassures them that you will be back, and almost always they will be asleep when you do. Just be sure you actually return every time you say you will. Then in the morning let them know you did, but they were asleep so you left them alone.