A Better Bedtime Routine: How I Taught My Daughter to Meditate
Bedtime can be one of the best times of the day when you have children. Sure, there’s the fact that you’re about to get some “downtime;” but it also can be a sweet time of stories, songs, and sharing. Experts normally suggest setting a bedtime routine that you stick to each night, in order to have a predictable and soothing end to the day. I recently changed my pre-school daughter’s bedtime, and am so pleased with the results, as they have led to an even better bedtime.
I have long wanted to teach my daughter to meditate. I have meditated over the years and love the feeling it leaves me with. But, additionally, more and more studies are being done that show meditation (and other mindfulness activities, like yoga) are beneficial to children, as well as adults. Initial studies found meditation greatly benefitted children who needed help with executive functions like focus and attention, but more recent studies have shown benefits to all children.
Recently I began reading The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate by Susan Kaiser Greenland (a pioneer in teaching mindfulness to children whose work has been the focus of many studies in this area). The book is full of great information gleaned from Susan’s years of teaching mindfulness to children. I was anxious to start using her techniques with my daughter, and when I reached one exercise in particular, I knew I had found my entree. (I didn’t want to be too heavy-handed with my daughter and wanted to find an exercise she would really look forward to doing, rather than trying to cajole her into it– as I feel there’s already enough cajoling in our lives right now).
The exercise I started with is called “Rocking a Stuffed Animal to Sleep With Your Breathing,” and I knew my daughter would love it because she’s particularly attached to her Abby Cadabby doll. I’ll excerpt the meditation here, but if you want to find it in the book, it begins on page 77). I start after my daughter is finished putting on her pajamas, brushing her teeth, etc., and is lying in bed.
ROCKING A STUFFED ANIMAL TO SLEEP WITH YOUR BREATHING
-Ask your children to lie still on their backs with their legs flat on the floor (or mattress), arms by their sides and, if they are comfortable doing so, with their eyes closed.
-Once they are comfortable, encourage them to let the weight of their bodies drop into the floor or mattress below them and relax.
-Then place a stuffed animal on each of their abdomens and say something like:
“See if you can relax and feel your head against the pillow. Your back against the floor. Your arms by your sides. Feel the weight of the stuffed animal on your belly. Now imagine you’re giving the animal a gentle ride with your breath: as you breathe in, your belly fills with air and the animal rocks up; as you breathe out, your belly empties and goes down. Breathing in, the animal rocks up, and breathing out, the animal rocks down. You don’t have to change your breath or do anything at all, just notice how it feels as you breathe in and out. If you like to pretend your stuffed animal is real, you can pretend you’re rocking it to sleep with a gentle ride on your belly as your breath moves in and out.”
[I repeat the breathing in, breathing out portions of this, to encourage at least five to ten mindful breaths. I also often do the breathing along with my daughter. Susan Kaiser Greenland recommends teaching only what you know from direct experience, so, though I have years of meditation experience, I like to do the exercise along with my daughter so I can experience it with her and also to model how it works. I love the moments where I have my eyes closed and can hear her breathing with me. It's priceless!!]
Kaiser Greenland also gives the option of saying any or all of the following, which I usually skip because my daughter is still young, and I don’t want to add too much complication to the exercise:
-You may notice that by paying attention to your breathing, it changes naturally; for example, it may become slower and deeper.
-You may notice that by paying attention to your breathing, the space between the breaths in and out lengthens.
-You may notice that by paying attention to your breathing, the feelings in your body change naturally; for example, your body may feel more calm and relaxed.
-You may notice that as your breath becomes slower and deeper, it becomes easier to lie still, and your mind may naturally slow down and become quieter as well.
-You may notice that as everyone in the room slows down and notices their breathing, the atmosphere in the room shifts and feels a bit different. Maybe it becomes easier to rest and pretend you’re rocking your stuffed animal to sleep.
-You may notice that it helps you pay attention when your friends, you siblings, and your parents are paying attention in the same way, too. That’s teamwork, and it’s what happens when we all work together.
SENDING FRIENDLY WISHES
At the end of the practice, Kaiser Greenland invites children to silently send friendly wishes (similar to lovingkindness in adult mindfulness techniques), if they are still awake. To prompt them, you can quietly voice aspirations that are meaningful to you and your family. For example:
First ask your children to send friendly wishes to themselves: ‘May I be happy; may I be healthy and have lots of fun; may I be safe and strong; may I live in peace with my family and people I love…’ Then to others: ‘May everyone be happy; may everyone have people in their lives who they love. I want everyone in the world to have a home where they feel cozy and safe; I hope that everyone is healthy and has lots of good food to eat; I wish that everyone in the whole wide world could live together in peace.’ And they can send friendly wishes to the stuffed animals that they’re pretending to rock to sleep: ‘Let’s pretend that your stuffed animal has real feelings and it loves to rock up and down on your belly as you breathe. Let’s put our hands on the stuffed animal and give them a little pat. Imagine we’re telling them, ‘I hope you’re happy; I hope you feel love; I want you to have a peaceful life; I hope lots and lots of children play with you and send you friendly wishes.’
After this exercise, I’m amazed at how much easier it is for my daughter to fall asleep. Since we’ve been doing this (it’s been 4 to 6 weeks now), I don’t think she’s ever gotten back up out of bed to ask for water, etc. Not only is it easier for her to go to sleep, but I feel a special closeness with her from doing these exercises together. Being mindful together adds a whole different aspect to our relationship that I really appreciate.
Last night, we tried another one of the mindfulness exercises Kaiser Greenland recommends in the book, and we both enjoyed that as well. It’s called “Starfish Stretch,” and it’s a nice opportunity to stretch the body before sleep. I felt a real body relaxation, as well as the relaxation of the meditation, itself.
Susan Kaiser Greenland says: “Before beginning this stretch, I talk to kids about how starfish have five limbs that come together in the center of their bodies. Almost everything a starfish does starts from its center. Starfish eat from their centers and their movements start from their centers. We talk about how people do a lot from our centers, too. We even breathe from our centers. Then, everyone finds a place on the floor [or bed, in our case] where they are able to lie on their backs and stretch their arms and legs out to the sides like a starfish, without touching anyone else. We imagine that our two arms, two legs, and heads (including our necks) are the five limbs of a starfish.
While taking a deep breath into our abdomens (or our centers), we stretch all five limbs out against the floor like a starfish, imagining that the movement starts in our middles and spreads out through our arms, legs, necks, and chests into our hands, feet, and heads. After stretching as we inhale, we exhale and relax, resting our bodies against the floor- arms, legs, back, hands, feet necks, and heads. Then we stretch our five limbs (including our heads and necks) again, while breathing in. When we breathe out, we relax and let any tension that we held in our bodies fall into the floor and the earth below.
We repeat the Starfish Stretch a few times before we sink into a still pose, letting the weight of our bodies relax into the floor. Now we’re ready to rest (and even rock a stuffed animal to sleep).”
I have found these practices so valuable with my daughter. I have found it calms her, eases her way into sleep, teaches her to be mindful, to be compassionate toward herself and others, and it has been a really sweet bonding experience for us. I think you’ll find it valuable as well. And check out the book The Mindful Child for much more!