A helping hand a bedtime
Christy Kirkpatrick talks to Professor Alice Gregory about what we can do to help children relax at bedtime
The nights are drawing in and there’s a chill in the air. Autumn is my favourite season, and it’s a real treat to curl up on the sofa with a book or a magazine in the evenings, once my children are in bed.
When I say that it’s a treat, I mean it. It is a treat to have some quiet time in the evenings, because in my house, putting the children to bed can take a while. I have three children, with ages ranging from five to twelve, and while one child may be tired, there is almost always another claiming to be wide awake.
It seems I’m not alone in finding that bedtime can be tricky. Other parents I speak to also have trouble getting their children to sleep in the evenings. Some children find it hard to sleep because as soon as they close their eyes, they start to worry about school or other things that are on their minds. Other children find it hard to wind down after a playdate or activity they have been to, a movie they have watched or game they have played. Their minds are racing, and it’s hard for them to relax, ready for sleep.
Bedtime, then, is not always plain sailing. But is there anything we can do to make it a little easier?
Professor Alice Gregory is a leading sleep expert and Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She tells me that there are a number of things we can do to help our children relax and become sleepy at bedtime.
According to Professor Gregory, one key thing we can do is to keep our children’s bedtime – and wake time – consistent. Our physiological processes are controlled by ‘clocks’ inside our bodies, so the timing of bedtime is important. However, she adds, we should only go to bed when we are tired, so it’s important not to make our children’s bedtime too early. We should also adjust bedtime as our children grow older.
In addition, Professor Gregory advises keeping bedrooms cool and dark. She encourages us to ensure that our children’s bedrooms are calm, tranquil places to be – and electronics in the bedroom should be avoided. Professor Gregory explains that electronic devices can emit ‘blue light’ which is particularly disruptive to our bodies’ ability to secrete the hormone melatonin. Even when that is not the case, devices can emit noise or lead to excitement which can disrupt sleep.
Professor Gregory tells me that it is a good idea to think about our children’s diet too – and to avoid caffeine. Children are unlikely to be drinking coffee, but we should remember that caffeine can be found in other food and drink such as cola and chocolate.
A bedtime routine is also important and bedtime stories can also play a part in helping children to relax at bedtime. It was for this reason that Professor Gregory, who is the author of Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep from Cradle to Grave (Bloomsbury, 2018), approached me with the idea of co-writing a book to help children relax at bedtime. I was on board straight away. I’m a children’s book writer with a background in publishing and loved the idea of co-writing a book that would make bedtime a little smoother for many families, including my own.
Professor Gregory explained that there had been emerging research to suggest that children could benefit from the same relaxation techniques as adults. Her idea was to embed some of those scientifically grounded techniques into a calming, beautifully illustrated book. She and I wrote a story called ‘The Sleepy Pebble’ and embedded three scientifically grounded sleep techniques in the story – imagery, muscle relaxation and mindfulness. We then trialled the story with one hundred families with children aged between three and eleven years old. The results and feedback from the families were encouraging, and we wrote four more stories, all featuring characters from the natural world and all embedding those same relaxation techniques. We then published the book as The Sleepy Pebble and Other Stories: Calming Tales to Read at Bedtime (Flying Eye Books, 2019). The stories in the book all feature characters from the natural world along with calming illustrations, advice about how to use the book, tips about how to make bedtime more relaxing, and a question-and-answer section.
The Sleepy Pebble and Other Stories has become my go-to book when I feel that our family needs a bit of a helping hand at bedtime. I just have to remind myself that if I want to curl up on the sofa after my children have gone to sleep, I need to be careful not to drop off myself!
The Sleepy Pebble and Other Stories: Calming Tales to Read at Bedtime (Flying Eye Books, 2019) can be bought from the publisher’s website and other retailers.