Learning to meditate and other mindfulness techniques can help children sleep for more than an extra hour every night, according to a new study.
The techniques, learnt as part of the primary school curriculum, helped children learn to become more emotionally stable, as well as get an hour and a quarter more sleep at night, said the research team from Stanford University School of Medicine.
Telling children to have an earlier bedtime does not work, according to the study, but teaching them how to relax does, said study senior author, Ruth O’Hara.
Low-income families were recruited to test how lessons in how to relax and manage stress may be used as a sleep aid in children who struggle to drift off.
Children from Hispanic families living in areas of high crime rates in San Francisco were not told how to get more sleep, but instead were instructed on mindfulness techniques at school, then had their brain activity examined.
Children who participated in the mindfulness lessons, delivered by classroom teachers twice a week, gained 74 minutes of sleep and 24 minutes of REM sleep.
Learning to meditate and other mindfulness techniques can help children sleep for more than an extra hour every night, according to a new study. Stock image
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF MEDITATION?
Meditation can be traced back to as early as 5000 BC.
It is associated with some philosophies and religions but is practiced as a secular, stress-relieving activity more and more.
A recent study revealed that meditation can reduce one’s risk of heart disease by decreasing risk factors that can lead to the illness.
Specifically, it found that the practices can lower one’s blood pressure and their anxiety and depression levels.
It can also help people quit smoking, which can lead to a fatal heart attack.
Experts are warning that healthy lifestyle changes such as being more physically active are still the surest way to ward off the disease, but adding that meditation can also decrease one’s chances.
Researchers used polysomnography, which measures brain activity, to assess how school-based mindfulness training changes children’s sleep.
Yoga instructors and the children’s classroom teachers taught the curriculum twice a week, for two years, in all schools in the community that received the intervention.
The study curriculum consisted of training in bringing one’s attention to the present; exercises featuring slow, deep breathing; and yoga-based movement.
Instructors also taught children what stress was and encouraged them to use the techniques to help them rest and relax, but they did not give any instruction on sleep-improvement techniques such as maintaining consistent bedtimes.
Over the two-year study period, among the children in the control group, total sleep declined by 63 minutes per night while the minutes of REM sleep remained steady, in line with sleep reductions typically seen in later childhood and early adolescence.
It increased by more in those children getting the mindfulness lessons than it declined in the control group – up to 74 minutes of total extra sleep per night.
From the more than 1,000 third- and fifth-graders taking part in the study, the researchers recruited 58 children who received the curriculum and 57 children from the control group for three in-home sleep assessments, conducted before the curriculum began, after one year and after two years.
These assessments measured brain activity during sleep, via a cap of electrodes placed on the child’s head, as well as breathing and heart rates and blood oxygen levels.
Lead author Dr Christina Chick, postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry, said it was expected that the control group children would decrease their sleep over time.
‘Older children are possibly staying up to do homework or talk or text with friends.
The techniques, learnt as part of the primary school curriculum, helped children learn to become more emotionally stable, as well as get an hour and a quarter more sleep at night, said the research team from Stanford University School of Medicine. Stock image
What is mindfulness?
Paying more attention to the present moment – to one’s own thoughts and feelings, and to the surrounding world – can improve mental wellbeing.
This activity is now being called mindfulness.
Mindfulness can help people enjoy life more and gain a deeper understanding of themselves.
You can take steps to develop it in your own life.
It was initially developed in East Asia and has become a trendy tool in Western cultures in recent years.
Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, writes on the NHS website that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.
‘It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour,’ he says.
‘An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience.’
‘I interpret our findings to mean that the curriculum was protective, in that it taught skills that helped protect against those sleep losses,’ Dr Chick said.
‘Hormonal changes and brain development also contribute to changes in sleep at this age.’
As rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which includes dreaming and helps consolidate memories, also lengthened in children who learned the techniques, it is suggested those kids may also be able to do better in education.
Dr O’Hara said ‘The children who received the curriculum slept, on average, 74 minutes more per night than they had before the intervention.
‘That’s a huge change,’ adding ‘they gained almost a half an hour of REM sleep.’
‘That’s really quite striking,’ she said. ‘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.’
Still, the average amount of sleep that study participants in both groups received was low, Chick said, noting that at least nine hours of sleep per night is recommended for healthy children.
The researchers plan to disseminate the findings more broadly, such as by helping schoolteachers deliver a similar curriculum.
They also plan further studies to understand how various elements of the curriculum, such as exercises that promote deep, slow breathing, may change body functioning to enable better sleep.
‘We think the breath work changes the physiological environment, perhaps increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity, and that actually results in improved sleep,’ Dr Chick said.
The research was published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
HOW TO COPE WITH SLEEP PROBLEMS
Poor sleep can lead to worrying and worrying can lead to poor sleep, according to the mental-health charity Mind.
A lack of shut eye is considered a problem when it impacts on a person’s daily life.
As a result, they may feel anxious if they believe lack of sleep prevents them from rationalising their thoughts.
Insomnia is also associated with depression, psychosis and PTSD.
Establishing a sleep routine where you go to bed and get up at the same time every day can help a person spend less time in bed and more time asleep.
Calming music, breathing exercises, visualising pleasant memories and meditation also encourage shut eye.
Having tech-free time an hour or so before bed can also prepare you for sleep.
If you still struggle to nod off, keeping a sleep diary where you record the hours you spend asleep and the quality of your shut eye on a scale of one to five can be a good thing to show your doctor.
Also note how many times you wake in the night, if you need to nap, if you have nightmares, your diet and your general mood.
Sleep problems can be a sign of an underlying physical condition, like pain.
Talking therapies can help your recongise unhelpful thought patterns that might affect sleep.
While medication, such as sleeping pills, can help break short periods of insomnia and help you return to better a sleeping pattern.