The rhythm of sleep

My children struggle with their transition to sleep.  I am not sure how to get them to eat their dinner instead of asking for a snack when it is already bedtime.  What would be an appropriate snack in the evening?  How many books should I read to my children before bed?  What is a supportive bedtime ritual for them?  My child leaves the room after bedtime 6 or more times.  I don’t see the end of sharing a room with my child.  How can I help transition her into her own room?  He has difficulty falling asleep on his own.  My child is afraid of the dark.  He stays awake in bed until very late.  She has bad dreams.  He wakes up and is ready to start the day when it is still not morning.  In the morning, once one of my children wake up, they all wake up.  Experts provide conflicting advice and I am not sure what to do.

These are the challenges and questions parents brought to a recent talk about sleep that I presented with my colleague, Dyanne Harshman, a kindergarten teacher at Whidbey Island Waldorf School.  Sleep offers a foundation for a sense of well-being physically, psychically, and emotionally, but it is often elusive for parents of young children.  How can we better support our children at bedtime so that we all may sleep better?

Untitled by OolongCha

The rhythm of breathing lays a foundation for understanding healthy sleep habits.  Take a moment to close your eyes and bring attention to your breathing.  In… Out… In… Out… As you breathe, with your hands make a side-ways figure 8 gesture towards yourself as you breathe in and away from your body as you breathe out.  In… Out… In… Out… It is not a start-stop action, but rather a fluid experience.  In… Out… In…  But, when you listen, you feel this slight pause as we turn from the in-breath and move to the out-breath and again when we turn from the out-breath and back to the in-breath.  We can see this pause in the curve of the imaginary figure eight we have gestured in the air.  In this pause, we can sense the moment from life to death, from night to dawn, and from waking to sleep.  The moment of falling asleep – it can be such a struggle for the young child (and adult, too) – such a struggle at times, and what a gift, to let go and surrender to sleep.

We experience this rhythm of breathing in aspects of life all around us.  When we breathe in, we take in air and when we breathe out, we release air back into the world.  This process involves our muscles and rib cage alternately expanding and contracting.  We ebb and flow.  The yearly cycle of the seasons also has a breathing quality to it.  In the summer the flowers reach to the heavens and we see movement and activity expanding on the earth.  The autumn brings a transition, the temperatures begin the change and we start to cover our garden beds.  Then winter comes and the bulbs and many animals begin a long sleep.  If we really listen and are present to the moment, we may feel a pause at advent time around the winter solstice.  And then the sun begins to return.  Spring comes, the birds return, and we feel summer on her way to continue the cycle of the year.

The Sun The Moon And The Truth by Dorina Costras

The Sun The Moon And The Truth
by Dorina Costras

We also see the cycle of breathing in the days, weeks, and months of our lives.  Each month we see the expansion of the full moon and the contraction of the new moon.  There is evidence that the cycle of the moon has an effect on our sleep – with people sleeping less around the full moon.   We talk about Wednesday as “hump day” as people feel the contraction of the week.  The end of the workweek brings a feeling of release and more free time for play and rest over the weekend.  Each day we experience the expansion of the new day and the contraction of night.  In each of these moments, imagine again our figure eight moving in and out with our breath.  Where is the expansion of the year, the month, the week, the day?  Where is the contraction?  Where do you sense the “pause”?

There is also a breathing quality in our sleep cycle itself.  When we first fall asleep, the “pause”, we enter stage 1 of non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep.  Our sleep then begins to cycle through stage 2, 3, and 4 NREM sleep.  Our brain waves get slower and slower until stage 4, which is considered our deepest sleep.  Then, we move back through stage 3 and 2 of NREM before entering rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which is considered “rapid sleep”, when our brain waves are faster and we typically experience dreams.  We then move back into stage 2 of NREM sleep and continue the cycle through the night.

When our children are not sleeping well, we often look for an answer in those moments right before bed.  Maybe if we start bedtime a few minutes earlier/ later?  What if they play more/ play less before bedtime?  Could it be that they ate too much/ not enough at dinner?  Bedtime routines are clearly an important aspect of preparing our children for sleep.  But, when we consider the rhythm of breathing, the rhythm of our lives, we realize that our sleep is as much a preparation of our day as our whole day is a preparation for our sleep.  We must consider how we honor rhythm in our child’s life when looking for answers of how to support their ability to sleep.  How does our child’s experience change with the seasons, months, weeks, days?  When are the moments of breathing in during the day?  When are the moments of breathing out?  How do we support our child in the many different transitions during the day?  When we give our child a strong, stable rhythm we enable them to trust and feel more secure in their environment which can make it easier for them to breathe, self-soothe, and fall asleep.

There are, of course, a multitude of challenges that affect our sleep and our children’s sleep.  At our parent meeting, we brainstormed a list of what hurts sleep:

  • Lack of/ change in/ break in rhythm
  • Sugar/ stimulating foods
  • Late nights
  • Too much to drink
  • Fears (ex. dark, death, separation)
  • Media/ screen time
  • Loud noise/ unpredictable noise
  • High activity
  • Too much light
  • Stress
  • Uncomfortable clothing (ex. itchy, too hot/ too cold)
  • Eating too late
  • Sleep deprivation

There are also lots of things we can do to help our children sleep.  Here are some of the things we brainstormed at our meeting:

Guardian Angel by Auromira Parks Banga at Magical Forest Creations Good angel take me by the hand and lead me through the starry land Stars, sing to me while I’m asleep your loving watch forever keep Then when I wake through all my days I may gladly follow in God’s own ways

Guardian Angel by Auromira Parks Banga at Magical Forest Creations
Good angel take me by the hand
and lead me through the starry land
Stars, sing to me while I’m asleep
your loving watch forever keep
Then when I wake through all my days
I may gladly follow in God’s own ways

  • Strong, stable rhythm
  • Let the child know when it is almost time for the bedtime routine to begin (For example, sing a song as a cue and then begin the routine a few minutes later)
  • Repetition
  • Caregiving/ connection during bedtime routine
  • Modeling our own enjoyment of sleep
  • Creating a calm sleeping environment
  • Warm bath
  • Early bedtime
  • Hot water bottle/ heat on belly at bedtime
  • Ritual
  • Calming or no scent
  • Parents personal belief/ conviction that bedtime routine/ style is healthy for your child
  • Transitional/ comfort items (ex. stuffed animal, blanket)

There may be, most likely will be, moments when we feel we and our children are not receiving the sleep that is needed.  But, we can find support and wisdom in the seasons, the moon, the sun, and our own breath.  We can strive to offer sleep to ourselves and our children as a healing gift that we impart through rhythm.

For more information, please read:

The Importance of Sleep by Susan Johnson, MD

Sleep On This by Janet Lansbury

Peaceful Bedtime Dream By The Parenting Passageway

Jordan Sleeping by Lisa DeWilde

Jordan Sleeping by Lisa DeWilde

So so so, all to rest must go.
Soo soo soo, baby sleep now, too.
In their cosy nest, birdies take take their rest.
So so so, all to rest must go.
Soo soo soo, baby sleep now, too.
In the barn the sheep dream in slumber deep.
So so so, all to rest must go.
Soo soo soo, baby sleep now, too.
In the heavens far twinkle many stars.
So so so, all to rest must go.
Soo soo soo, baby sleep now, too.
~ Wilma Ellersiek


5 thoughts on “The rhythm of sleep

  1. Pingback: The Subtleties of Baby Sleep (4 Important Things To Know) | Janet Lansbury

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