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For children living in stressful households, telling them to just sleep more or keep to their bedtime schedule simply doesn’t cut it. What may work instead is mindfulness training, according to a new study from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

According to researchers, at-risk children living in rough neighborhoods with a lot of stressors slept, on average, 74 minutes more per night after they were taught exercises featuring slow, deep breathing, how to bring one’s attention back to the present, and yoga-based movements. What’s more, not only did the quantity of sleep increase but also the quality of sleep.

Thinking of the present helps kids sleep better

For their study, researchers led by Ruth O’Hara, a sleep expert and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, recruited children from two low-income, mostly Hispanic communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Children from one community received the mindfulness intervention while the children from the other community served as the study’s control.

Both communities are rated high in crime and violence, and the families living there have to deal with food insecurity and crowded housing conditions. All of this can make children’s lives very stressful, with far-reaching consequences for their well-being — and that includes sleep.

Better mind, better sleep

Stress can have a significant impact on children’s sleep. When children are stressed, their bodies may produce more of the stress hormone cortisol, which can make it difficult for them to relax and fall asleep. Stress can also cause children to have racing thoughts and worry, which can make it difficult for them to quiet their minds and drift off to sleep. Additionally, stressful events or situations may cause children to experience physical symptoms, such as stomach aches or headaches, which can make it hard for them to sleep.

Over the course of the intervention, trained instructors went to the children’s schools and taught them what stress was and how to use various techniques to help them rest and relax. These included things like learning how to perform deep breathing, enhance sensory awareness, or do yoga feet stretches. However, the intervention did not include instructions on sleep-improvement techniques such as maintaining consistent bedtimes.

The researchers assessed the children’s sleep patterns before the curriculum began, one year after completion, and after two years. The assessment involved measuring brain activity during sleep using a non-intrusive cap fitted with electrodes on the child’s scalp, as well as measuring breathing, heart rate, and blood oxygen levels.

Over the two-year study period, the children from the control group (who received no intervention whatsoever) slept 63 minutes less per night compared to when they first embarked on the study, while the amount of REM sleep remained constant. This is an expected sleep reduction that is typical of individuals transitioning into adolescence.

Why you should never overlook REM

The children who went through the mindfulness curriculum gained 74 minutes of total sleep and 24 minutes of REM sleep. During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the brain is highly active and processes information from the day, consolidates memories, and helps to form new connections. REM sleep is also thought to be important for emotional regulation and may play a role in helping us to process and cope with difficult experiences or emotions.

“They gained almost half an hour of REM sleep,” said O’Hara. “That’s really quite striking. There is theoretical, animal, and human evidence to suggest it’s a very important phase of sleep for neuronal development and for the development of cognitive and emotional function.”

The researchers note that children transitioning into adolescence (such as the study participants) tend to stay up late to do homework or talk with friends. In this context, the curriculum seems to have had a protective effect, by teaching children the skills they need to better cope with stress and learn how to actively relax. Relaxation, the opposite of stress, is essential for falling asleep faster and feeling rested the next day.

However, despite the training, the number of shut-eye that kids from both groups received was sub-optimal, hovering between 7 and 7.5 hours. The recommended amount of sleep for healthy children is nine hours per night.

Nevertheless, mindfulness interventions seem to work when it comes to improving children’s sleep, which is why the researchers plan on doing more research on how things like exercise and slow breathing promote deep, resting sleep. They’re also looking to introduce a similar curriculum in pilot schools.

“We think the breath work changes the physiological environment, perhaps increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity, and that actually results in improved sleep,” said Christina Chick, postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford.

The findings were reported in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Tips on how to help children sleep better

There are several things you can do to help your children sleep better. Here are a few tips:

  1. Establish a bedtime routine and stick to it. This can help your child wind down and prepare for sleep. A bedtime routine might include activities such as taking a bath, brushing their teeth, reading a book, and listening to soothing music.
  2. Make sure your child’s sleep environment is conducive to sleep. This means keeping the room dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature.
  3. Avoid giving your child caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants before bedtime. These can interfere with their ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  4. Help your child relax before bedtime. This might include giving them a relaxing massage, practicing deep breathing or meditation, or listening to calming music together.
  5. Encourage your child to get regular exercise during the day. Regular physical activity can help tire them out and make it easier for them to fall asleep at night.
  6. If your child is old enough, teach them healthy sleep habits. This might include setting a consistent bedtime, avoiding blue screens before bedtime, and not napping during the day.

Overall, the key is to create a calm, relaxing environment that will help your child fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.

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