By Dr. Noel Swanson
In order for us to get restful sleep, we need to be relaxed. In order to relax, a number of things have to happen.
First of all, we need to feel safe and secure. Obviously, if there is tension in the house – abuse, parents rowing, problems with finances or neighbors, or else problems at school or with friends, it will be much harder to relax and fall asleep.
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:
A warm bath and hot milky drink. The warm bath relaxes the body, and allows the metabolism to slow down as it does not need to be so busy generating heat. Warmth also relaxes muscles. Warm milk contains an amino acid called Tryptophan which is a naturally occurring sedative. Obviously avoid drinks such as Coca Cola, tea or coffee, which all contain caffeine. Avoid also activities that are arousing or frustrating; just before bed is not the time for them to be getting upset about their homework or frustrated with their Gameboy.
A bedtime story. This helps to push out the anxieties of the day, whilst also giving the child some special one-to-one attention. The child feels loved and valued, and therefore safe and secure. This can be followed by a recorded tape story, to which the child can listen with eyes closed and in a darkened room. But pick a story that is calming, not frightening!
Relaxing music. Unlike the eyes, we cannot close our ears. The sounds and noises of our environment are constantly entering into our system. Most of them tend to wake us up and increase stress. This is particularly true of sudden and unexpected noises, such as a dog barking, a fox howling, of a heavy lorry passing by. While we cannot shut our ears, we can modify the sounds around us. First of all is to make the room as quiet as possible. Often there is not much that you can do about this, but certainly heavy curtains, double glazing, and closed doors can all help.
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 energizing, 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.
Colour and Light. Not only are our bodies and minds sensitive to the frequencies and rhythms or sounds, we are also profoundly affected by light and colour. This is well know by supermarkets and football teams! The supermarkets use green/blue tinged lights to make the vegetables look greener and fresher, but red tinged light on their meat counters. This is done very subtly, but very effectively. The colours on the product packaging are equally carefully chosen and designed to motivate you to buy. The stores are brightly lit, and may have “muzak” playing. All of this is done to make you feel up-beat and comfortable. The longer you stay, the more you will spend. Contrast that with some dingy shops that you know. In the same way, some football clubs will paint their changing rooms in different colours – red for the home team, as it is activating and arousing; and blue for the away team, as it is relaxing and 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.
The lighting is also important. Not surprisingly, bright lights keep us awake. So too, does light with a “cold” or bluish tinge – such as from fluorescent lights. This is, after all, the lighting of the early morning sun. On the other hand, the twilight sun is full of warm shades of orange and red. So the light from a dim bulb or, better still, from a candle, oil lamp, or natural fire, will be much more relaxing. Combine these with pink furnishings, soft slow music, the sound of waves on the beach ….
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 color 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.
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.
The humidity can be improved in three ways. One is to simply turn the heating down, and compensate with more blankets ( which may help the child to “feel grounded”). The other is to add some moisture to the air. This can be down with a humidifier (which may also produce some background white noise), or simply by draping a wet flannel over the radiator. Put a couple of drops of essential oil in the water or on the flannel, and you will also provide a gentle aroma in the room.
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.
Dr. Noel Swanson, Consultant Child Psychiatrist and author of The GOOD CHILD Guide, specializes in children's behavioural difficulties and writes a free newsletter for parents. He can be contacted through his website on Expert Parenting Advice.