Most adults have learned that they won’t fall asleep until they are relaxed. Even though it sounds contradictory, learning to relax can take some work.
Feeling safe and sound is of the utmost importance. If children hear their parents arguing, if there are financial problems, trouble with neighbors or disagreements with friends, trouble at school, they experience tension and don’t feel safe. Of course it’s even worse if their parents abuse them. Any one or combination of these situations won’t let your children relax and enjoy a good night’s sleep.
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:
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.
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.
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.
There is one other feature of natural flames that makes it so relaxing – it flickers. Typically, in fact, if flickers at a rate of about 6-7 Hz. The brain tends to entrain to this frequency, which produces the very relaxed state of “theta wave” activity.
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.
Our most primitive sense is smell. Think of the times you’ve sniffed the briefest whiff of something that takes you right back to old memories and emotions. Since they affect our emotional state, some smells can help us sleep. The essential oils of mandarin, chamomile roman, lavender and palma rosa are recommended. If you have children older than five, use neroli, geranium and nutmeg in addition. A mixture of mandarin, chamomile and palma rosa or a mixture of chamomile, geranium and nutmeg are especially good. Put the oils in bath water, or rub it on skin with massage oil. You can even put it in the humidifier water. Remember to use moderately. Your goal is subtlety rather than an overpowering smell.
Humidity and fresh air. In the winters we tend to have the windows closed, and the heating on. The closed window cuts out the outside noises, but also cuts out the fresh air. Furthermore, the heating dries out the air, which in turn dries out our nasal passages. Stuffy air and uncomfortable noses are a common cause of poor sleep and wakening in the late parts of the night. Opening the window a crack may help.
There are three ways to improve humidity. Turn the heat down and use more blankets. Remember, this can also help a child feel grounded. Add some moisture to the air with a humidifier or drape a wet flannel over the radiator. The humidifier will create white noise as well. If you put a drop or two of essential oil in the water or on the flannel, you will also create a pleasing aroma.
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.
Most of us wake up during the night at least once and more likely two or three times. Even when we are not fully awake, too often we are unable to fall back to sleep. Some of the things mentioned above will help in that department, but there are other things to consider. Don’t give your child a lot of extra attention when she wakes up in the middle of the night. This will only reinforce the behaviour until it becomes a habit. The younger the child the more likely she is to cry or make some type of sound. Try to avoid running in to soothe her. For one thing it will cause her to come more fully awake and for another it will reinforce the waking pattern. Usually if you can just let children be, they will fall back to sleep. It probably won’t happen right away because they will be waiting for you to come rushing in. If you can tough it out, they will start going back to sleep sooner. There are so many possibilities for helping children to sleep that you can probably come up with some other good ideas.
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.