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.
When we get into bed it's time to forget about the day's business, shut out environmental distractions, and slow our heart rate and metabolism. As our bodies start to drift, so do our brains. During the day, brain waves might run at 14 Hertz (cycles per second) or more. When they start to slow down, they first go into an "alpha" rhythm (about 10 Hz), and then gradually go into the deep sleep rhythm, called "delta", about 4-7 Hz.
Setting up the environment in the right way can go a long way toward helping us relax. So will keeping to a regular routine. The body gets used to it and knows when it's time to slow down and get ready to sleep. Here are a few ideas:
Soak in a warm tub and drink some warm milk. The bath relaxes our bodies, allowing the metabolism to slow down. It doesn't have to stay active and generate heat. Muscles relax when they are warm. The warm milk contains Tryptophan. This is an amino acid which acts as a natural sedative. Stay away from caffeinated drinks like Coke, tea or coffee. Don't engage in activities which will wind you up or frustrate you. Keep the kids away from the frustrations of homework or the activity of the Gameboy.
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.
Secondly, we can introduce sounds that help to shut out the wrong noises, and that also help us to relax. White noise, such as that produced by a fan or a humidifier does help to drown out the lorries and the barking dogs. So does a radio playing quietly in the background. Unfortunately, these sounds in themselves tend to be arousing and stressful rather than relaxing. This is to do with two factors: pitch and beat. High frequencies sounds are energising, whilst low frequencies are relaxing. White noise is fairly high frequency, as is most music played on the radio - especially if played through a cheaper system with a poor bass response. Also, most popular music has a fast beat. Disco music is the most obvious example of this. No doubt at times you have found yourself tapping or nodding in time with the beat of some catchy music. This is called "entrainment", and describe the fact that our bodies like to align themselves with the rhythms around us. Our heart rates do the same - in general, as you listen to fast music or a fast beat (such as with rap music), your heart rate will speed up; when you listen to slow music, it slows down.
For sleep, we need to listen to low pitched sounds with a slow rhythm. We should try for a beat of 50 to 60 Hz, the rate or our resting hearts. Where do we find these sounds? Some classical music and some nature sounds qualify. I recommend recordings made specially for relaxation. Some of the best are made by Steven Halpern. The Sound Health Series CDs, called "Relax" and "De-Stress" are great. Play them quietly as background noise to drown out the dogs and to create a peaceful environment in the child's bedroom. If he wakes often during the night, consider playing continuous-play CD.
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.
We've learned how sensitive we are to frequencies, rhythms and sounds. Our bodies also react to colour and light. Supermarkets use this to their advantage by lighting the vegetable sections with blue/ green tinged bulbs. The vegetables appear greener and fresher. Note the use of red tinted lights at the meat counter. It's a subtle but effective technique. Packaging is also carefully planned as to colour and design, with the motive of making it appealing enough to buy. The rest of the store is brightly lit and has music playing. Do you feel comfortable and happy? This is the goal, so if you feel these things they have been successful. The more time you spend in this environment, the more money you will spend. Think about some dark and dreary shops that you've seen. You didn't feel so enthusiastic did you? Using the same principles, football clubs paint the changing rooms in psychologically chosen colours. The home team changes in a red room to arouse them into action, while the away team has a blue room to relax and quiet them into lethargy.
Think about the colour spectrum. Blue is meant for us to feel serene, green harmonious and peaceful, while pink signals warmth and feeling cozy. These quiet colours are perfect for bedrooms. Be careful with the blues and greens however, as they can also feel cold. Using yellows, reds and other lively colours in a bedroom, isn't a good idea. Even though the effects are subtle, they may get our blood flowing and keep us from sleep. These effects are usually subconscious but that doesn't make them any less real.
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.
How do we get around not putting a candle, oil light or open fire in a child's bedroom? One way is to use electric bulbs that flicker. There are also fiber optic lamps available that create a low level light, changing from one colour to another. The slow, gentle changes are relaxing, assuming that they aren't too bright. Some children like to sleep in a completely dark room. This is when the thick curtains will come in handy to screen out late night and early morning summer sun.
Since it's pretty unlikely that a parent would wish to put candles or oil lamps in a child's room, there are other options to consider. You can find fiber optic lamps that are very relaxing, even if they don't flicker as low as 7 Hz. They do, however, change colour slowly and the level of light is very low. The changing colours and soft light are so calming that they should be very helpful in getting your child off to sleep. Also available are lights that flicker so as to resemble a small flame. There are some children who prefer to sleep in a totally darkened room. If this is the case in your family, consider the heavy curtains that block twilight and early morning sun.
We often close our windows in winter and leave the heat on. This cuts down on outside noises, but also keeps out fresh air. The heat dries out the air as well, in turn drying out our nasal passages. When we have stuffy noses and air, we will usually sleep poorly. Even opening the window a crack will help.
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.
Waking during the night. It is normal to wake or almost wake several times during the night. The trick is to get back to sleep again. All of the above will increase the chances of this. Along with this it is important not to reinforce a behaviour pattern of waking up during the night by giving it a lot of attention. Infants and young children especially will often cry or make other noises when they wake. Do not immediately rush in to comfort them - this will only wake them up more, and reinforce the pattern of waking in the night. If you leave them alone, most will gradually settle and go back to sleep by themselves. Initially this may take some time, as they are used to getting your attention, but gradually, if you stay firm, this period of time will get shorter.
Of course these are a million other ways to help your child to sleep. Feel free to experiment to find what works for you.
But what about yourself? As a parent, how ofter to you wish you could just catch up on some sleep? How often do you feel worn out, tired and exhausted? Or wish you could just catch a few zzz's before the kids get home? Most likely, you are still believing in some 19th Century myths about sleep. Take a look at this website to discover some amazing facts about sleep that could seriously transform your life. May you have peaceful nights and pleasant dreams.