Big hearts and vivid imaginations
Preschoolers kiddos have big hearts and vivid imaginations which can test our patience at bedtime when we want our child to sleep. My daughter is a great example of this— everything she worried about comes out around bed time. “Mom, I’m so tired but my eyes just can’t close”. “Mom, let me tell you about this REALLY exciting thing that happened 4 days ago that can not wait until morning because my head might actually explode if I don’t tell you right now!” “Mom, what if I wake up in the night and there are 400 ants in my room, and I can’t get out because they form a wall of ants at my bedroom door”.. Sound familiar? Story of my life, mamas.
As an adult, I have started learning self-soothing practices. Listening to my own mental health requirements and noticing what was important for my well being has become a priority in my life. The ability to self-soothe can make a significant impact on your own sleep, patience and parenting— something we all need and desire.
I started thinking that this experience can be a great teachable moment for my daughter because she often struggles with allowing her brain to shut down and relax. Why wait until we are adults to do this when we can give our kids the best head start at mental wellbeing?
Focused Muscle Relaxation
This works well for very busy kids who have very jittery little limbs. Part of relaxing your mind involves physically relaxing your body. Ask your child to lay on their back, comfortably and offer to help them “tell their muscles to sleep”. You may find this method most helpful for kiddos who are very active and have a hard time sitting still. This will allow them to still have control over their body movements, but in a calming way.
Start with their toes. Have your child wiggle their toes, then ask your child to think about making their toes very still— as if their toes are going to have a nap. Don’t move on to the next muscle until they have actually stopped moving their toes.
Work your way up their body, all the way to their arms and finishing with their mouth, nose and eyes. Remind your child to take big breathes.
I love talking to preschoolers. The energy, excitement, and love they have for everything is truly one of life’s precious gifts. Now let’s use that to our advantage when we are helping our kids sleep. Start with asking them to focus on their breathing— in and out, in and out. They will often start with in … pause, “mom let me tell you…”. But with practice this will become easier. Focusing on breathing is hard for adults, so this task is extra-difficult for excited preschoolers.
When your kids start to get excited about something they have done or a place they have been, take note of this. Being able to take them back to a really happy time in their life will help them relax before sleeping. We often talk about our favorite spot to picnic in the summer— we have so many good memories of playing beside the river and finding treasures in nature. Its perfect for busy minds.
Use the 5 senses to help settle and relax
Start by suggesting that you talk about a nice place, somewhere that you can remember together. Encourage stillness and say the rules are that they must keep your eyes closed in order for us to talk about the adventure. Being able to close your eyes is a important for self-soothing. It’s the first step in relaxation.
Begin by talking about the place that you both love. Think about having a picnic. Talk about how nice and warm the sun is for example, how the river is moving slow so you can dip our toes in, and how the rocks feel soft and bumpy on our feet. Adjectives will be your best friend, but also noticing all of the 5 senses when talking about your favorite place really allows your mind to focus on the experience.
Once your child is relaxed is when you really put the icing on the cake by leading this in to sleeping. “I think we had such a nice day, now its time to go home. Think about how tired you were on that day after we had so much fun. Maybe mommy needs to carry you back to the car and that’s okay. You can rest your head on mommy’s shoulder”, is a great tool that I use.
Watch your child’s reaction to this. Often, they will be very relaxed at his point, breathing will slow but they aren’t quite asleep. This would be when I would step out so that your child can’t finish putting himself to sleep by himself.
There are many apps and music downloads that you could also find to help with these stories if you search for “guided mediation for kids.”
Focusing on an Object
Most kids have a favorite stuffed animal that they want to sleep with, maybe a blanket. We refer to these as “lovies” that they adopt when they’re babies to use as a positive sleep prop. When they wake up through the night and need help connecting sleep cycles they can use the lovie to put them back in to a deeper sleep.
What may help in addition to your child’s stuffed animal, is a physical object that appeals to their senses and can be something you child is able to focus on. Try giving him a piece of rough fabric or a piece of bamboo from an old teething toy. An object that has a distinct texture to it that he can hold.
Once you find an object that will work, its important to show your preschooler how to use this to their advantage. “This toy is a special tool that you can add to your toolbox for sleeping, it takes your worries away if you hold it tight”. Notice how this tool is different from your bear because it’s bumpy (or use another adjective), its designed to help you feel better when you’re going to sleep.
I would use this with guidance for a few days— stay in the room and remind your child to focus on their new, special tool. And then as they get better at using it I would leave and let them take the lead.
Helping your preschooler self-soothe is for more than sleeping. This is a developmental skill that they can take forward as they become more independent and in to school. The trick is to give them the tools now and when they need to use it, they will have the innate knowledge of what helps calm them and will do this themselves. I would try hard not to make this a sleep prop—- we don’t want you having to stay in to room every night until they go to sleep. The key is to teach your child this, leave before they go to sleep, and have them complete the task themselves. This will take them far in life and they’re lucky to have a great parent who teaches them about mental wellbeing from an early age. If you’re looking for a great resource for teaching mediation and mindfulness to your kids (or yourself!) Headspace —app or website— is a great resource.