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PAR : Dr Robin Alter

It’s time for bed. The run up to bed time can be filled with activity, which could either be from doing homework or just having fun with siblings and/or parent(s). You do a quick bedtime routine and then the child is then expected to turn off their busy brains and slip into unconsciousness. But this is not so easy. The brain just doesn’t want to turn off and how can you get to sleep when you’re still thinking about so many things– both good and bad?

For some kids, and especially after an invigorating day that included some intense and exhausting physical exercise, the head hits the pillow and as soon as the lights are out in the room, the mind turns to dreamland. Sometimes sleep pulls you into it like a best friend reaching up and pulling you towards something you just must see right this minute. But, for many kids, getting to sleep is like a nightmare that starts before you are even asleep. Here are some ideas about letting sleep find you.

If you can teach your child good sleep habits, you will be giving him/her a gift for life. And the process of falling asleep is very much a learned habit. Like many other learned habits, such as training your body to go to the bathroom at convenient times, it requires lots of repetition. Sleep is a paradox, which means it’s not logical. For example, sleep does not respond well to direct effort. The more you try to go to sleep, the more you wake yourself up. In fact, trying hard leads to sleeplessness. So the last thing you want to tell your child is “Go to your room and just try to go to sleep.” This will likely lead to more frustration and more wakefulness.

Why can’t my child get to sleep?

Children with busy minds often have trouble getting to sleep. And if you have an untamed mind that is used to doing exactly as it wants to do, why should it all of a sudden obey the command to be quiet and allow sleep to overtake it? The answer is– there is no good reason why it should. When someone lies down and closes his/her eyes, this is precisely the time when the mind goes into overdrive. All of a sudden the action of life stops. There are no distractions and the mind becomes bored. There is nothing interesting to focus on. The mind therefore starts creating, and the more active one’s imagination, the more creative the productions of the mind. A busy mind will start generating worst case scenarios, such as “Oh No! What if I didn’t do my homework correctly, or I did the wrong homework?” Or higher up on the intensity scale might be– “What if I get left out of playing with my friends again, or so and so is mean to me?” Or even worse “What if that noise I just heard means there’s a robber in the house?” If you have a vivid imagination, then you are not simply mouthing these words, but each of these thoughts comes complete with an internal movie, with lots of vivid imagery– enough to get anyone’s heart beating rapidly, which is opposite to the conditions which will draw sleep nearer.

Putting a busy mind to rest-

When we put our child to bed we are not simply putting their body in the bed. Create a routine and then stick to it. This will create a conditioned response, so that when you do those things the body and mind respond automatically that it is time for sleep. But we also need to put the mind directly to rest. You will likely come up with your own dialogue, but I would urge you to use the same dialogue every night. That way it becomes a ritual and creates a good habit–something that when done over and over in the same way, generates the same outcome– the desired outcome. The routine for putting the mind to rest involves first telling the mind that it is being put to rest. Then there is a review of the day, both good and bad. Then you might touch on some good things to look forward to the next day. If there are any troubling issues or concerns that the child brings up or that you know of, you might mention them and with the help of the imagination, put them somewhere for safekeeping. There might be an imaginary vase or a colourful box that these problems go into for safekeeping, until the time is right for dealing with them. There’s no point thinking about them now because now is the time for sleep, not for solving problems. Late at night is not when we do our best thinking. Then, depending on the child’s age you might go through a list of all the good and cherished things in the child’s life– all the people that love him/her and whom he/she loves back. All the wonderful things he has, such as a nice room, a nice bed, lots of stuffed animals, etc. All the good things to look forward to. Drifting off into sleep is easier when one has lots of positive thoughts in one’s head.

A sample dialogue:

“We’ve come to the end of another wonderful day and it’s time to put your mind and thoughts to rest. What were the good things that happened today? Any things that weren’t so good? That’s O.K. Life is made of good and bad. We can learn from the bad things. It makes us stronger and wiser. Is there anything we need to put in the box for safekeeping? We can get to it later when it’s the right time. If thoughts about those things come back, gently say “Not now. Go back in the box. I’ll get to you later.” And now let’s list all the people (and animals) who love you? And now say good night to this day because it is done. Tomorrow will be a new day, but now it is time to let it go and be at rest.”

Sometimes it is necessary to do a bit more to help a child learn to relax and turn off the mind. Here are a few suggestions:

“Let the breath come in, deep into your belly, like a baby breathes. Just allow the breath to come in and go way down into your belly. (You might put your hand gently on the child’s belly so that your hand raises up as the belly expands. If you do this, give the child soft positive feedback as the belly expands– say “Yes, very good, that’s it.” (Many children try to hard to get this right. If your child’s efforts seemed labouring, simply say “let the breath do all the work. All you need to do is watch the breath come in and go all the way into your belly. The air wants to come in, you don’t need to do anything. Just let it happen. ”

With older children you might say something like– “Breathing is a miraculous thing. Every day, thousands of time every day, your breath takes what is needs from the air, the oxygen and brings it to your body to use for energy. Every inhale brings the oxygen to you. Every exhale gets rid of what your body doesn’t need anymore– the carbon dioxide. You can use this miracle to take in other things you need and get rid of what you don’t need. You might breathe in fun, success at school, lots of friends, scoring goals, etc. And on the exhale imagine all the things you don’t want or need, like sadness, or upset, or worry. Just let them go and take a free ride out of your body on the exhale. Let it go! You don’t need it.” Do this as long as the child wants to. It can be very satisfying to imagine all the things you want coming into you and all the things you don’t want leaving your body and being carried off, perhaps in a hot air balloon, or whatever comes to mind.

Another approach is to use the child’s imagination to create a soothing scene that will take the child to sleep. Remember, the mind doesn’t like being told to think of nothing. If the screen is blank, the mind is likely to fill it with something it finds interesting, which might be scarey, suspenseful or action-oriented, which might lead to wakefulness. Therefore the following strategies give the mind something to focus on as one drifts off to sleep. If you try this one it is helpful to use the same one over and over again. Once it becomes a habit, then all the child will need to do is put him/herself in that scene and off to sleep he/she will go–

“Imagine you are lying on a cloud and the cloud is drifting every so slightly from one side to another and slowly moving down towards the ground. You are nice and comfy on this puffy cloud, drifting from side to side and enjoying the swaying motion of the cloud as the gentle breeze brings you down and down the land of slumber.”

“Imagine you’re on a raft on a lake and the gentle waves are moving the raft from one side to another and you sink deep and deeper into the raft and smell the water beneath you. Feel yourself swaying and drifting from side to side and slowly moving closer to the land of slumber.”

I have taught this next one to children as young as 8– “Imagine you are standing in front of a blackboard or a whiteboard. You have a piece of chalk or a marker and an eraser. Now imagine you pick up the chalk. Feel it in your fingers. Feel the smoothness against your skin. It might even feel cool to the touch. Reach up your hand and slowly draw the number one. You might start at the top, or you might start at the bottom. Or you might even start in the middle. It doesn’t matter. Wherever you start is the right place to start. Feel the movement of your hand and arm as you write the number one. Completely draw the number one. When you are finished, put the chalk down. Now pick up the eraser and begin to erase the number one. You might start at the top, or the bottom or you might even start in the middle. Wherever you begin is the exactly the right place to be. Erase every bit of the number one. Feel the movement of your arm as it erases. Take your time. When you are finished put the eraser down. Now pick up the chalk and write the word S-L-E-E-P. You might be printing it or you might be using cursive. Either is fine. Write every letter and feel your arm, enjoy the movement of your arm as you write the word S-L-E-E-P. Take your time. When you are done, put down the chalk and pick up the eraser….. Continue until the child is asleep. Few people get past the number 6.

This exercise is a good one because it is positive but fairly boring and repetitive, which are just the right conditions to induce sleep. It is also a bit more interesting than simply counting something like sheep. It involves more than one sense– sight, touch, smell as well as action. It incorporates the suggestion of sleep.

What has science taught us about sleep?

There are some useful bits of information about sleep that are very useful to know when sleep eludes you.

Brain waves move up and down all day long, as well as all night long. Sometimes we are more awake and sometimes we are drowsy and closer to sleep. Even when we are asleep, sometimes we are deeply asleep, and sometimes we are closer to a more awake-like state. If you are very much awake or at the top of the wave, it is more difficult to get to sleep. If you have fallen asleep and then suddenly find yourself awake, as many children do, then your brain waves are on the rise and it is more difficult to turn them around and get yourself back to sleep. If you are in a deep sleep and then something awakens you, it is usually quite easy to fall back to sleep because even though your eyes are open you are basically still asleep. If you try to get back to sleep when you are essentially wide awake and your brain waves are moving towards more wakefulness, then you are working against nature. It would be analogous to trying to turn the bike around when it is heading straight down the hill. It can be done, but it requires brakes, getting off the bike and basically changing direction. It’s a lot simpler to let yourself go down to the bottom of the hill and then sometimes the momentum of going down can propel you half way up the other side. So, if you or your child wakes up in the middle of the night, do something like read a not too exciting or interesting book, or listen to some music, for about 20 minutes and then go back to sleep. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes to move from the awake to the drowsy part of the brain wave cycle. Why fight nature when we can work with it? If it’s time to go to sleep and you or your child finds that drowsiness seems far away, then do the same– read or listen to music for about 20 minutes until drowsiness sets in. It will come.

Sometimes you have to trick your mind–

As I said in the beginning of this chapter, one cannot force oneself to sleep. In fact direct effort often produces the exact opposite of what is desired– more wakefulness and often frustration and anxiety along with it. So, as the French philosopher, Merleau Ponty said, “When we go to sleep, we lie in bed and imitate a sleeping person and hope that sleep will find us. We say ‘Here I am a sleeping person.” If sleep does not come as soon as we would like, then lie still for a while, repeat about all the good things that were said when you first closed your eyes and say things like– “Even if I can’t sleep, it’s O.K. I have lots of pleasant and nice things to think about. I am cozy, warm and safe in my bed and I can just lie here thinking about all those nice things.” If you imagine being up all night, tossing and turning and being miserable, if you think about what’s going to happen the next day after you have been up all night, if you spend time thinking about unpleasant things, then for sure sleep won’t come. If you give yourself a harsh scolding and tell yourself you must go to sleep, Sleep is unlikely to come. But sometimes you can trick sleep into coming by saying, “It’s O.K. I can lie here and not sleep and still be O.K.– and then sleep might just come.”

Just remember when your child is getting out of bed and complaining that he/she cannot get to sleep, it is because his mind has not been put to rest. The same trouble you are having with your child, he/she is having with his/her own mind. When you put your child to sleep, don’t just put his body to bed, help him/her put his mind to rest and he won’t be jumping out of bed so often.