There’s plenty of advice out there for parents who want to help settle their children down to sleep at night. If you’ve been looking for ideas you’re probably familiar with suggestions like a warm bath, a regular bedtime routine, and avoiding screen time just before bed.
But what if it you’ve tried everything, and none of it works for your child?
I used to teach meditation and relaxation sessions at a mental health center, and when I became a parent, I adapted some of the exercises I employed there to help my high-energy child relax at bedtime.
These exercises are best done after your child is in bed, with the lights out or just a gentle night light left on. Hopefully you’ll be tiptoeing out of the room before you finish!
When doing these exercises always speak in a gentle soothing voice, use rhythm and repetition, and slow down as you speak. As your child seems more relaxed pause between some words, and elongate sounds.
The last time I did this one with my daughter she fell asleep almost instantly.
I begin with, “You are a jelly sweet. You are a purple jelly sweet lying on the floor. On the warm floor, in the sun. You feel soft and melty, lying on the warm floor, in the sun. You are lovely and warm and soft and squishy…”
Encourage your child to really imagine how it feels to be a jelly sweet and continue the description of how the sweet is becoming softer and meltier until it eventually melts into the floor, by which time your little one will hopefully have melted away to sleep.
My daughter loves cats, so I came up with this one just for her, but of course it could easily be adapted to any other animal.
We begin by imagining a cat, maybe a kitten, maybe a big, old silver tabby, anything my daughter likes. I’ll describe the cat using gentle words like "soft" and "fluffy," and give it a sleepy sounding name such as "Dreamy."
I’ll talk slowly about how comfortable Dreamy feels, how she purrs and stretches as she snoozes on the end of the bed. Other imaginary cats may also climb onto the bed and snuggle up next to Dreamy.
Repeating words and phrases suggestive of sleep can be really effective at bedtime, it’s a technique used to great effect by Swedish psychologist Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin, in the bestselling The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep.
Professor Luc Beaudoin promotes a technique called the cognitive shuffle to help insomniacs which involves picturing a random sequence of objects for a few seconds each. The theory is that imagining a succession of nonsensical images can induce sleep.
For this visualization, it helps to have some image ideas prepared – it’s surprisingly tricky to come up with a random list on the spot.
Take your child for an imaginary stroll through a lovely garden filled with strange things. For example, “See the swirly-whirly tree, it’s branches are rainbows slowly twirling through the air. Tiny ironing boards hop about underneath, watch them jump, hear them rattle as they land.”
Focus on one item for a few seconds, then move on to another unrelated item. Imagine an Alice in Wonderland scenario where nothing makes sense but ensure it feels safe and lulling.
Water is a common feature of guided relaxations as many people find water sounds intrinsically relaxing. According to Professor Orfeu Buxton at Live Science this is because slow, whooshing noises are ‘non-threats’ that work to calm people.
For this exercise begin by encouraging your child to imagine him or herself wrapped in a warm blanket in the bottom of a little boat. You might want to place the boat near to the banks of a small river to add a sense of safety, perhaps put yourself in the boat too.
You can begin, “We are snuggled under a fleecy blanket, in our little boat, under a starlit sky." Bring different senses into play – the gentle bobbing sensation, a soft breeze, rustling leaves, the murmur of the water as it flows over rocks. Imitate watery sounds with words like "hush" and "shush" as you gently drift downstream – and your child gently drifts off to sleep.
This visualization begins with the child imagining standing at the top of a long staircase, leading down to the land of sleep.
You can number the steps and count down backwards with each one – counting backwards is a standard hypnosis technique – but it’s not essential. Just let your child know that with each step they’ll feel little more relaxed, and a little more sleepy. Give the steps different colors, textures, and associations.
So, for example, a soft fluffy white step made of marshmallow may be followed by a shimmery silver step as light as air. Again use sleep-suggestive words, "Going gently down to the next step, it’s deep dark velvet, soft and smooth, making you feel even more sleepy."
If you reach the bottom of the staircase and they’re still awake, you can walk them through the garden of dreams until they are even more deeply relaxed.
Ask your child to imagine they are as light as a feather and can be lifted by a gentle breeze.
“How would it feel to be carried gently along in the sky? Imagine you are a feather drifting higher and higher, drifting further and further away from the earth, drifting gently across the sky. And now you begin to float gently down, landing on a soft fluffy cloud, floating in the air. How does it feel to lie on a cloud in the warm sun? The earth below is far away, it’s noises have faded into the distance. You are safe and comfortable on your cloud. Relax and let the sun warm you…”
A water-based exercise I use involves imagining being a little fish gently swimming to the bottom of the sea.
Along the way, the fish looks at beautiful corals and strange, slow moving (but unthreatening) sea creatures. At the bottom of the sea, it’s time to rest under a rock and watch the sea life as it passes by.
Again, think of your child’s interests, perhaps they’d prefer to be a whale, a jellyfish, or a sleepy octopus. What all of these creatures have in common, is that they they’ve had their adventures for the day and are settling down for the night.
Once your child is familiar with the exercises they can practice using them on their own. If they wake in the night you could tell them to imagine the floaty boat, or the sleepy cats, or whichever one of the exercises works best for them, to help themselves get back to sleep.
You can, of course, adapt these talks to work with your own child’s special interests. If you have a particularly high-energy child, try teaming a guided relaxation up with a gentle back rub – it can work miracles!