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Parenting Advice: Getting Children To Sleep

Jan 21, 2008
We can't get a good sleep until we are relaxed. A few things must happen before we get there. We need to feel secure and safe. Any kind of tension, such as abuse, parents arguing, financial problems, trouble with the neighbors, or problems with school or friends, will make it harder for any child to go to sleep.

We also need to feel secure and safe in the bed. Some children with sensory integration difficulties, such as problems with touch sensitivity, body position sense (proprioception), or gravitational insecurity may find lying down on a high bed difficult. Such children may be helped by having heavy blankets that help them to feel more grounded.

To sleep, we then need to turn our minds off the business of the day, shut out the distractions of the environment and slow down our heart rate and metabolism. As we drift into sleep, not only does the body slow down, so too does the brain. Brain waves, which are often running along at 14 Hertz (cycles per second) or more during the day, will slow down first to an "alpha" rhythm (around 10 Hz) and then gradually right down to the deep sleep of a "delta" rhythm (4-7 Hz).

All of this can be helped by setting up the environment well, and also by developing a regular routine so that the body learns the signals that tell it that it is time to slow down for some sleep. Here are some suggestions:

Some ways to help sleep come more easily, are keeping to a set routine and creating a comfortable environment. Following these suggestions help our bodies pick up signals letting it know that it's time to slow down and go to sleep. Here are some helpful ideas for getting there:

A nice bedtime story is very calming. It focuses away from daily anxieties and provides special child-parent time. Feeling loved and valued lets the child feel more safe and secure. If you wish, you might play a taped story after you read to him. Pick a soothing story and turn out the lights so he can listen with his eyes closed.

Soft, relaxing music is good. We can't close our ears against the noises from our environment. These can easily wake us up and heighten our stress. Especially disturbing are barking dogs, howling foxes or heavy lorries driving by. At least we can modify the sounds. Make the room as quiet as you can by using heavy curtains, double glazed windows, and close all the doors.

Since we can't close our ears, relaxing music might help lessen the shock and disturbance of hearing sounds from our environment. Sudden noises and those not expected tend to wake us and cause stress. Some sounds we can't control are a barking dog at the neighbors, a fox or other creature howling, or even lorries passing the house. However, we can take some steps to modify our environment. Using heavy drapes or curtains, double glazed windows and closing doors can aid in keeping out some sounds.

To create a sound environment that promotes sleep, we therefore need sounds that are low in pitch, and have a slow rhythm. A beat of 50 to 60 Hertz, the rate of our hearts when fully relaxed, would be ideal. Where do we find such sounds? Some classical music meets these requirements, so to do some nature sounds such as waves gently rolling onto the beach. My recommendation is to use some of the recordings that are deliberately created for relaxation. Amongst the best that I have come across are the those by Steven Halpern, and also the Sound Health Series CD's called (appropriately enough), "Relax" and "De-Stress". These should be played very quietly in the background, both to drown out the dogs, and to generate a peaceful sound environment in the bedroom. If your child has a tendency to wake easily and frequently in the night, it may be worth putting the CD on continuous play so that it carries on right through the night.

Our bodies are also greatly affected by light and colour. Supermarkets and football teams are well aware of this. The stores use blue/green tinted bulbs in their produce sections to make the vegetables appear greener and fresher. They use red tinged lights at the meat counters. They use these techniques subtly but effectively. They also are particular when designing product packaging, so that you will be stimulated to buy. They keep the lights bright and the "muzak" playing. They do this so you will feel happy and right at home, causing you to stay longer and spend more. Think about this in relation to some of the dingier shops, and you will understand their strategy. Sometimes football clubs will paint the home team changing rooms in red, to spur the players to action; and the visiting team's room blue, which is calming.

Blue is for serenity, green for harmony and peace, pink instills warmth and cosiness. All of these, especially if in muted tints, are ideal of bedrooms, although blue and green may produce too cold an atmosphere. On the other hand bright and vibrant colours such as yellows and reds will rev us up and keep us awake. The effects are subtle and certainly not conscious, but even so are very real.

Lighting also makes a big difference. Obviously, bright lights wake us up, as do cold or bluish tinged lights, such as fluorescent. This mimics early morning sun. Twilight consists of warm reds and oranges. That means light from a dim bulb, candle, oil lamp, or fire, is more likely to help us sleep. If you include pink furnishings and slow, soft music and the sounds of waves lapping at the beach, you will have a winning combination.

Be sure to consider lighting when you design a bedroom. Bright, blue or cold lights tend to wake us up. An example of these are the fluorescents. That's because they imitate the early morning sun. At twilight the sky has the warm colours of orange and red. The most relaxing lights for nighttime come from low wattage bulbs, candles, oil lamps or a nice fire. If you add these lights to pink furniture, soft and slow music, the waves on the beach you get the picture.

Of course it may not be safe to have a candle, oil lamp or open fire in your child's bedroom! So how can we get around this? One option is to use the electrical bulbs that simulate a flickering flame. The other is to use speciality lamps such as fibre optic lamps that produce a low level of light, that gradually changes from one colour to another. They may not flicker at 7 Hz, but the slow and gentle changes are themselves relaxing, as are the colour changes, provided they are not too bright. Other children prefer to simply have a dark room with no lights on. Certainly it pays to have thick curtains that screen out the late night and early morning light of the summer sun.

Aroma. Smell is, in fact, the most primitive and basic of our senses. How often have you had a brief whiff of some smell that has brought certain memories and emotions to come flooding back? Smells affect our emotional state, and the right smells can help us to sleep. Recommended for sleep are the essential oils of mandarin, chamomile roman, lavender and palma rosa. For children over five, neroli, geranium and nutmeg can be added to the list. These oils can be combined, with a mixture of mandarin, chamomile and palma rosa, and also of chamomile, geranium and nutmeg being particularly effective. The oils can be put in bath water, rubbed on the skin with massage oil, or put in the water of the humidifier. Once again, moderation is the key. It is subtlety that we are looking for, not an overpowering smell.

Were you aware that our sense of smell is the most primitive of all our senses? It's true. You can most likely think of occasions when there was some scent in the air, even momentarily, that reminded you of something from your past. The experience can be quite emotional. Following that idea, it stands to reason that some aromas will enable us to fall asleep faster, and get a better rest during the night. There are several essential oils that serve that purpose specifically: mandarin, chamomile roman, lavender and palma rosa are among them. Others that are safe for children older than five are neroli, geranium and nutmeg. Combine these for your child with mandarin, chamomile and palma rosa. Mixtures including chamomile, geranium and nutmeg are considered to be the most effective. You may need to do some experimenting to find the best combination, but remember to be moderate with your mixtures. Ways to use them are in the bath water, rubbed on skin (add massage oil), or added to humidifier water. These subtle aromas can be most effective relaxation techniques.

Not having some fresh air to breathe at night can be interrupting to sleep. Think about opening a window, even if it's just a tiny bit. Too many people close all the windows and leave the heat running at night. Not only does it get close and too warm, lack of humidity dries out nasal passages. When we are uncomfortable, especially when it comes to breathing, we tend to sleep poorly and awaken often.

Most people awaken or come close to it, several times throughout the night. The hard part can be falling back to sleep. If you are using the above ideas, they will help. It's also important not to reinforce a pattern of behaviour, so if your child wakes up don't give him attention. Babies and young children might cry or make other noises, but try to just wait them out. Usually they will go back to sleep on their own. If you usually rush in to them, it will take them time to adjust to being ignored. Soon the period of wakefulness will shorten.

Of course these are a million other ways to help your child to sleep. Feel free to experiment to find what works for you.

What about you, the exhausted parent? How many days a week do you long to make up some of those lost hours of sleep? How many times in a day do you focus on how totally worn out you are? Do you often wish you could get in a little nap before the kids get home? Those ways of thinking date back to the 19th century and are actually myths about sleep. Read more on this site and you will learn a lot more about sleep that can offer you some major changes in how you think about it. May you sleep peacefully and have lovely dreams.
About the Author
To get more parenting advice by Dr. Noel Swanson, why not visit his parenting advice website and get his free newsletter?
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