My seven-year-old son has had trouble falling asleep recently. Sometimes it’s because he’s been sitting around too much and hasn’t expended enough energy. Other times his anxious brain is thinking about something that worries him. Still other times his energetic brain is just too excited or distracted to fall asleep.
Maybe it’s genetic. I have vivid memories of wandering down to the kitchen and telling my own parents, “I just can’t fall asleep.”
This kind of trouble with falling asleep is normal for many kids, but it’s different from a crying baby or the toddler who throws a temper tantrum. “Sleep training” takes on new meaning at this stage and becomes a bit more about mental training.
The good news is there are simple strategies you can use and teach, which can help your kids get through the night with minimal yelling, crying, or frustration.
The strategies I draw on come from my own training and practice in mindful meditation. While more advanced silent meditation sessions are appropriate and incredibly useful for parents (read my perspective on meditation for mama here), kids benefit from shorter, simpler, guided mindfulness exercises.
Hint: before you get started, consider talking to your child about how the brain works using these helpful tips from Mindful.org.
For each of the bedtime exercises below, I encourage you to have your child start by taking three to five mindful breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth (“smell the flowers, blow out the candles”). Encourage them to try to slow down a little bit with each breath.
When they are calmed and ready, have them try one of the following exercises, presented in order of simplicity and as a script that you can use to coach your child:
1 | Counting your breaths
Now, as you breathe in and out, I want you to start slowly counting your breath. Breathe in – “1” – breathe out “2” – breathe in “3” – breathe out “4” – and keep counting until you get to 10. Then start over again at one. If you lose track of where you are, don’t worry about it at all. Just start back at 1 and keep going until you feel tired and fall asleep.
2 | Body scan
Now we’re going to help each part of your body to relax and fall asleep. Close your eyes and just listen to my words as I guide you through it. Don’t worry if you get distracted. When you notice you’re thinking about something else, just focus back in on my voice and listen again.
We’ll start with your toes. Wiggle your toes around a little bit and then let them relax. Your toes are feeling really sleepy, and really heavy. Breathe into your toes and when you exhale let them relax even more. Now let that relaxed feeling move into your feet, through your heel, and up to your ankle. Now your feet are totally relaxed and tired.
Use this same script to move up through your child’s body all the way to the head. Be sure to speak slowly and calmly and gradually decrease your voice to a whisper.
3 | Guided imagery
Let’s try to think about something you really love doing. Once you’ve thought of it, tell me a little bit about it. For example, I know you really love skiing. Shall we think about your favorite trail at your favorite mountain?
Use examples that are appropriate to your child. Once they have identified something they love doing, begin prompting them to think through that experience from beginning to end, paying attention to what they see, hear, feel, or otherwise sense as they move through the experience.
One of the benefits of doing these exercises with your child is that you are teaching them to be aware of how their brain works and how they can gain some control over their “monkey brain.” This type of knowledge is transferable to all sorts of situations, and frankly serves adults just as much as it serves kids.
And what better place to teach it then curled up in bed with them at the end of a busy day?