Mindfulness meditation offers a novel and effective approach to emotion regulation and stress reduction that can dramatically improve sleep patterns.

Common, ordinary anxiety and worry can lead to sleep problems in children. Children may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and may become anxious about their trouble sleeping. Research shows that mindfulness-based exercises significantly increase sleep time, reduce insomnia and lower pre-sleep arousal levels. One 2011 study found that students who participated in Tai-Chi not only increased their mindfulness but also improved their sleep quality. Another study of ninth-grade girls experiencing poor sleep found that mindfulness training improved sleep onset, sleep efficiency, and total sleep time. The students went to bed earlier and woke earlier as well.

Mindfulness meditation was originally developed as a training method for increasing awareness. By increasing awareness in the present moment, individuals can shift their attention to what is, rather than worry about what might be. Awareness and acceptance help usher in the  “letting go” that allows sleep to naturally occur.

Here are some tips for guiding your children through mindfulness meditation activities to help ease them into the blissful land of Nod.

For children of all ages, set aside a few minutes before bedtime, ideally at the same time every evening, to engage in a heart-to-heart talk. Let the child  confide their troubles and fears. Offer reassurance and sympathy, and a hug or snuggle if appropriate. Then begin a mindfulness exercise. Parents and children can engage in these exercises together the first few times, and then later the child may be comfortable initiating exercises on their own.

Seated Mindful Breathing

Sit on a comfortable chair, meditation cushion, or the edge of the bed. Drop the chin slightly, let the eyes close. Follow the breath as it flows slowly in and out. Feel air moving through the nose and mouth. Notice the stomach and chest rising and then falling. Pay attention to the peaceful pause before each inhalation. If the mind wanders, just return attention gently to the breath. Deep, gentle, slow breathing can relax the body and slow the heart.

Lying Down Mindful Breathing

Lie comfortably in bed, and breathe in deeply and fully. Feel the lungs fill with air. Notice the chest and belly rising. Now exhale and let the feelings and worries of the day flow out with the breath and disappear like wisps on the wind. If worries arise again, accept them without judgment and exhale them gently with the breath, seeing them float away and vanish. Now imagine breathing out to the edge of the sky or horizon and then breathing from there back into the body.  This exercise can shift the body to a calm-and-connect state.

Switching Off Meditation

This can follow a lying down meditation. Notice the feeling of the body on the bed. Feel the warm body sinking into the mattress. Notice where the body feels heavy and where it feels light. Notice the small toe of the left foot and imagine it is going to sleep for the night. Give it permission to switch off for the night. Do the same for each toe on the left foot, then the heel, ball of the foot, ankle, calf, knee, and thigh. Now, exhale and notice how the entire left leg is relaxed, heavy, and warm. Repeat this switching off exercise with the right leg. Continue up through the pelvis, belly, chest, and down the arms, into the hands and fingers. Drift off to sleep.

Loving Kindness Meditation

After mindful breathing, a child of any age can receive loving kindness by thinking of a person close to them who loves them deeply. Whether a parent, relative, friend, or even someone who has passed on, they can picture that person next to them, smiling and sending love and warmth. They should linger over the love that is emanating from that person’s entire being. Feeling that love, they should now bring to mind a second person who cherishes them, and imagine that person standing next to them on the other side, just beaming out love and protection. Finally, they can bring to mind everyone who loves and cares for them—their favorite teacher, their best friend, their pet—and imagine them all gathered together, sending wishes for happiness and health. They can feel in their heart and chest area all the warmth, safety, happiness and joy of being loved.

In the second part of a loving kindness meditation, a child can send that love back to each person, starting with the first one they pictured. They can feel their own heart expanding, filled with joy and love that flows out to others.

by Jill Neimark

This Article's Author

Jill Neimark is a veteran science journalist and author of adult and children's fiction. A former contributing editor at Discover Magazine, she also written for Scientific American, Science, Nautilus, Aeon, The New York Times, NPR, Quartz, and Psychology Today. Her most recent adult nonfiction book, coauthored with bioethicist Stephen Post, PhD, was Why Good Things Happen to Good People