Believe it or not, your kids ARE listening to what you say. When we speak about sleep, we want to make sure we’re using positive language. Often kids see sleep as a punishment that ends the fun of the day and not a great time to get cozy in our beds so our bodies can grow stronger and taller, and recharge so we have energy for the next day. Ask your child if they know why we sleep. I find this a fascinating question to ask kids. They often have no idea! Tell them all the great reasons why our bodies need to rest.
When speaking with children, the specific words you say matter. I encourage parents to use the work “rest” instead of sleep. For a child who is anxious, saying “go to sleep” can actually become a stressful proposition for them; we cannot will ourselves so sleep, no matter how hard we try. In reality, the harder we try, the harder it is. When we tell our kids to “close your eyes and rest,” we’re asking them to do something they have the power to do.
Something to Think About
Often kids will say they’re bored when trying to sleep, or they may keep thinking about worry thoughts, or scary thoughts. Help your kids brainstorm a list of things to think about when they rest in bed, and pick one each night. Topics can be as tangible as “think about the time we went to the beach” to whimsical ideas like “think about flying on a unicorn to a beach filled with cotton candy that you can build a castle with instead of sand.” Get creative!
A fun activity to do is to come up with a list of items and locations and put each on an index card. Before bed, have your kids pick 2-3 cards from the pile and use these words to create a new story for them to think about as they rest in bed.
Counting can be a simple activity to help quiet our minds and a very useful tool for children when they can’t sleep. A young child may love the challenge of “see how high you can count while you rest in your bed.” Tell them that you can’t wait to hear what number they got to when they wake in the morning.
A child who is struggling with worry thoughts can also benefit from counting. Counting is a benign activity that is boring enough to allow the brain to fall asleep, and concrete enough to be a distraction from our worries. Older kids can count by twos, or tell them to count backwards by twos from 200. (Please note if your child is really struggling with anxiety they should see a licensed therapist.)
Similar to counting, belly breathing helps quiet our bodies and minds. Children can put a stuffed animal on their belly and watch it go up and down while they slowly breath in and out. Counting while they breath can help ensure breathing is slow enough to promote sleep. Have your child count in for four to five seconds and out for four to five seconds (slightly longer intervals is fine too if they can handle it). This is a great tool to practice during the day time so kids know what to do, and can do it on their own in bed.
Screens, whether on an iPad, TV, phone or computer, can stimulate our brains and make it hard for people (yup, you too grown ups!) to fall asleep. If your child is having a hard time falling asleep at night, set a screen time curfew at least an hour before bedtime.
It’s OK to Rest and Not Sleep
Its important for kids to know that sometime we all lay in bed waiting to sleep and that’s ok! Talking to your kids about your own sleep can really help. Tell them what you do to get cozy and comfy in bed before sleep, and you can also tell them that sometimes you rest and let your mind wander before you fall asleep. The tools listed above should help empower our children so they aren’t worried or frustrated when they can’t sleep. Instead, they have a way to quiet their minds as they rest in bed and you can regain your adult time, too!
Lauren studied under Deborah Pedrick, a pioneer in the field and founder of the Family Sleep Institute (FSI) and International Association of Child Sleep Consultants. She is thrilled to be able to educate families on the importance of sleep and to empower parents with the knowledge and ability to teach their kids to love sleep as much as her girls do!