A child sleeping in bed

Family Health

Active Minds, Restless Sleep: An Expert’s Advice For Making Bedtime Sleep Time

Apr 13, 2018

It’s time for bed. The run up to bedtime 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 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?

When you put your child to sleep, don’t just put their body to bed, help them put their mind to rest and they won’t be jumping out of bed so often.

If you can teach your child good sleep habits, you will be giving them 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. However, 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.

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Why Can’t My Child Get To Sleep?

Children with busy minds often have trouble getting to sleep. When someone lies down and closes their eyes, this is precisely the time when the mind goes into overdrive. All of a sudden there are no distractions and the mind becomes bored. 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 worrying about homework. Or higher up on the intensity scale might be, “What if I get left out of playing with my friends again?” Or even worse, “What if that noise I just heard means there’s a robber in the house?” If a child has a vivid imagination then 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. We're putting their minds to bed too. One way to help accomplish this: create a routine and 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.

Another approach is to use the child’s imagination to create a soothing scene that will take the child to sleep.

Using consistent dialogue can help a lot. First, you can ask your child to tell their mind that it is being put to rest. Next, you can review 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. Explain that 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, like all the people who love them. Drifting off into sleep is easier when one has lots of positive thoughts in one’s head.

Here's some 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 OK. 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.' Let’s list all the people who love you. Now say goodnight to this day because it is done. Tomorrow will be a new day, but for now let it go and be at rest.”

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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 lead to wakefulness. Therefore the following strategies give the mind something to focus on as one drifts off to sleep. If this is helpful, use it over and over again. Once it becomes a habit, then all the child will need to do is put themselves in that scene and off to sleep they will go.

“Imagine you're lying on a cloud and the cloud is drifting ever 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 into the land of slumber.”

I have taught this next one to children as young as eight:

“Imagine you are standing in front of a blackboard. You have a piece of chalk and an eraser. Now imagine picking 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 'sleep.' You might be printing it or you might be using cursive. Either is fine. Write every letter, enjoy the movement of your arm as you write the word 'sleep.' Take your time. When you are done, put down the chalk and pick up the eraser." Continue counting until the child is asleep. Few people get past the number six.

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 and touch as well as action. And it incorporates the suggestion of sleep.

What About Waking In the Night?

Brain waves move up and down all day long, as well as all night long. 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 then 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.

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Imagine trying to turn a bike around when it is heading straight down a 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 and can't get back to sleep, do something like read a not-too-exciting 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.

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

Article Author Dr. Robin Alter
Dr. Robin Alter

Read more from Dr. Robin Alter here.

Dr. Robin Alter is a trustee with The Psychology Foundation of Canada and chair of their Kids Have Stress Too Program. Dr. Alter co-led the development of this ground-breaking program targeted to parents, raising awareness that children do experience stress and providing parents and caregivers with the tools to help their children identify and manage stress. Dr. Alter is a registered clinical psychologist in practice since 1979. Her current practice includes both the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents and adults. She consults to Blue Hills Child and Family Centre since 1980.  She has authored two books: Anxiety and the Gift of Imagination and The Anxiety Workbook for Kids. Follow The Psychology Foundation on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and to access Kids Have Stress Too! resources.