Why Sleep Meditation Works for Kids and How to Try It
If your household is like mine, the evening drill for anyone not paying rent goes something like this: Bath, brush teeth, books, bed. Emphasis on "BED."
Occasionally there's mutiny in the ranks, and that's where "sleep meditation" or "bedtime meditation" techniques sound really attractive—almost the stuff of fantasy. Designed to help kids relax and drift comfortably off to sleep, this type of meditation encourages the brain frequencies known as the "alpha state"—when you're relaxed while awake—as in, daydreaming or nodding off but still responsive to sounds, such as a telephone ringing (or preschooler's door opening after light's out), before deeper phases of sleep.
But should you start a sleep meditation practice with someone in footie pajamas, and if so, how?
"The short answer is, 'Yes!'" says Cory Cochiolo, a meditation expert, hypnotherapist, and author of the forthcoming Bedtime Meditations for Kids: Quick, Calming Exercises to Help Kids Get to Sleep. Children's needs are no different than adults' in many ways, she begins. "At bedtime especially, they have a fundamental need to feel safe and comfortable, to feel happy, to not be worried about anything, to feel loved. The key with any meditation practice is to try to create a warm, loving environment that they've participated in."
This is sometimes easier said than done. "When my own daughters were young, I was pretty militant," confesses Cochiolo. "I was big on routine, which kids need and love, but also on timelines and other organizing factors, like having their beds or rooms set up a certain way. What I've learned is that kids invest in and trust a routine most when they've participated in making it."
Want to try it? Use these expert tips as a guide for setting your toddler or preschooler up for sleep meditation success:
Give your child a say in their bedtime setting. Within reason, says Cochiolo, let your child choose their bedtime companions—toys, pillows, even the color and texture of the sheets or blankets on their beds, or the colors of their walls.
Encourage kids to co-create a story-based guided meditation. "The brain loves a story, and children this age are naturally curious to follow a story to its end," says Cochiolo. "But instead of insisting on a book, or limiting choices to printed books, ask instead, 'Would you prefer a book? Or would you like me to make up a story?' In other words, offer choices you'll be happy with, but realize it's a really big deal to give them a choice to relax into, to fall into sleep easier."
Choose a voice your child likes hearing. Maybe it's your voice (yay!), but maybe it's not, explains Cochiolo. If you're streaming a guided meditation (see a few options below), have your child help you choose. "The kids who give me feedback on my web content are really good about telling me when something sounds creepy," says Cochiolo. "Maybe the music isn't right for them. Or, they didn't like the accent of the voice." (Pro tip: Listen for opportunities to make your voice more hushed or slow down the pacing of your words. These are natural cues for the body to do the same, drifting toward sleep.)
Be persistent. Change is hard! Don't give up if your child resists, says Cochiolo. "If it's just not working to ease into meditation at bedtime, sit down with your child at other times and have it be something that's fun." One easy way to check your parent baggage is to expect each participant to focus at a rate of one minute for each year of age. "Can you practice meditation for the minutes corresponding to your age?" she challenges. Another trick is to have a guided meditation playing throughout your child's bedtime routine so it becomes the soundtrack for comfort and safety. "Don't make a big deal of it—just leave it playing, and they'll get used to it."
Practice your own gratitude. One of Cochiolo's favorite activities (demonstrated here by story characters Heidi, Cherry, and Vaya) is the Reassurance Game. "When you're snuggled in, take turns with your child giving heartfelt compliments." For example, (parent to child): "I think you are so smart. You are good at asking questions." (Child, addressing parent): "Mommy, I think you're so loving." The goal, says Cochiolo, is to "fill up your child's cup of love so they can relax and fall asleep in the comfort of being understood and accepted."
Finally, remember that meditations can (and should!) be adapted to the mood or the needs of your child, which at tender young ages, can change by the hour. "Some meditations are designed to release energy built up before bed, and some are serious," explains Cochiolo. "Some just encourage talking about your day, and some are silly. In the end, they're all intended to help kids feel better in their bodies and quiet their mind." Here are a few of our favorite resources to get you started:
- Stop, Breathe & Think (free) — With an emphasis on fun activities and meditations, this app is designed to help kids ages 5-10 with focus, quiet, peaceful sleep, and processing emotions. Your little one will learn mindful breathing and the importance of checking in with herself. She'll also win stickers for completing "missions."
- Cory's Conscious Living (free) — This YouTube channel contains 500 meditations for children, is vetted by kids, and is organized around recurring characters and themes.
- New Horizon Meditation & Sleep Stories (free) — YouTube channel and app for children and adults full of guided meditations aimed to aid with sleep.