- Children from low-income families who learned to practice mindfulness at school slept an average of 74 extra minutes, according to a new study.
- Time spent in REM sleep, which is important for emotional well-being, also increased for many children who participated in mindfulness training.
- Children who do not have access to mindfulness training can develop these skills through simple exercises at home, with the help of a parent or caregiver.
The stress and disruptions of the pandemic have resulted in sleep deprivation for almost everyone, including children. But a new study has found something that can help little ones relax more easily: mindfulness training.
New research from Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that a diverse group of children from low-income families slept more than an hour each night after receiving mindfulness training in their elementary school for two years. The experiment also increased the children’s duration of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is important for emotional well-being and resilience.
For the report, a team of researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine set out to learn how mindfulness training can affect children’s sleep. They recruited 115 children in third and fifth grades at two elementary schools in Northern California for a study. Their communities had “historically high rates of violence and crime,” which had previously been shown to increase stress among children.
All participants came from low-income families, many of whom were considered “very low-income,” and almost all students primarily spoke Spanish at home. The children were between eight and 11 years old at the start of the study in December 2014. The proportion of boys was slightly higher than that of girls in this group.
The researchers divided the participants into two groups. 57 children in the control group participated in their usual physical education classes, while 58 children in the experimental group participated in a health and mindfulness program instead of physical education twice a week for 2 years. The curriculum teaches students exercises such as dynamic breathing and yoga-inspired mindful movement.
All children wore a device that recorded snoring, breathing, body position, eye movements and other sleep-related activities before bed each night. They were surveyed on stress levels and psychosocial functioning. Those who participated in the mindfulness program were also asked how much they enjoyed the health and wellness practices and whether they used breathing exercises outside of class.
Ricky Thompson, LMHC
The results show that mindfulness training gives children the tools to calm the nervous system in preparation for sleep.
– Ricky Thompson, LMHC
After analyzing the data, researchers found that mindfulness training had a remarkable effect on children’s sleep, increasing total sleep time by an average of 74 minutes per night. Children who said they used breathing exercises outside of the classroom experienced the greatest increase in total sleep. In contrast, children in the control group had an average 64-minute reduction in total sleep time at the end of the study.
“The results show that mindfulness training gives children tools to calm the nervous system in preparation for sleep,” says Ricky Thompson, MA, LMHC, a counselor at ThriveWorks Jacksonville, Florida.
What’s more, children who participated in the mindfulness program also had 24 extra minutes of REM sleep per night, compared to no change in REM sleep in the control group. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, this type of sleep occurs when dreaming and can play an important role in learning, memory retention and mood stabilization.
Tools for at-risk kids
Experts say the results of this study provide evidence that mindfulness can be an effective way to help all children, but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, counteract the effects of stress on their sleep and overall health.
“These are children who probably live in fear—where they’re going to sleep, when their next meal is, and other survival fears. When you can take the nervous system out of survival mode, the brain can rest and improve overall sleep,” says Cheryl Albright, OTR/L, C-IAYT, an occupational therapist, yoga therapist and owner of Soul to Soul. Yoga in Lakewood Ranch, Florida.
Cheryl Albright, OTR/L
When you can move the nervous system out of survival mode, the brain can rest and improve overall sleep.
— Cheryl Albright, OTR/L
Furthermore, the fact that mindfulness can be little to no cost to learn and completely free to practice, makes it more accessible to low-income families.
“Kids from criminal backgrounds can practice mindfulness all day and any day without feeling guilty about the financial impact on their families. “Children are very intuitive and often feel guilty because they recognize that their family is struggling and fear that treatment options may burden their family,” says Leela R. Magavi, MD, Regional Medical Director of Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Center.
She adds that mindfulness helps children become more aware of their stress and gives them tools to manage their feelings, which not only improves sleep, but also offers other health benefits.
“Acknowledging external stressors can help children in different ways,” says Dr. Magavi “In fact, mindfulness is the heart of mindfulness and allows children to combat stress, insomnia, anxiety and depression.”
Also, getting enough sleep is important for children’s development. Children who get the right amount of sleep have better focus, concentration and academic performance. People who don’t get enough sleep are at higher risk of mental health conditions, obesity, type 2 diabetes and other concerns.
Practicing mindfulness at home
Most public schools in the United States do not offer mindfulness training programs like this study. However, that doesn’t mean kids can’t learn mindfulness at home, especially with a little help from mom, dad, or another caregiver.
“Parents can start practicing mindfulness with their kids by doing simple breathing exercises,” says Thompson. “Mindful breathing shifts energy from tension to relaxation.”
You can also take your child’s mindfulness training outside, such as in the backyard or a city park, and help them find ways to notice the present moment.
Leela R. Magavi, MD
Parents can consciously walk with their children and observe colors, sounds, smells and sensations together.
— Leela R. Magavi, MD
“Parents can consciously walk with their children and observe colors, sounds, smells and sensations together,” says Dr. Magavi.
She has also had success using visualization and meditation exercises to teach mindfulness to young children in the clinic.
Dr. Magavi continued: “I ask toddlers and preschoolers to make a big balloon that they want to make. I ask them to inhale slowly and deeply to make sure the balloon will expand, and then exhale very slowly, so the balloon doesn’t pop. When they get bored, I ask them to make a balloon. At home, their parents do the same and as a result, meditation becomes a fun and familiar coping skill.”
Aim to keep the exercises simple and fun. The more you can make mindfulness an accessible, positive experience, the more children can develop these tools and use them when they need them most—like falling asleep at night.
What does this mean for you?
If the pandemic (or any other stressful event) is disrupting your child’s sleep, you might consider teaching them mindfulness practices. New research shows that children were able to get more than an hour of sleep after participating in a mindfulness training program at school for 2 years.
Although most public schools do not have mindfulness programs, children can develop these skills at home with the help of parents or caregivers. Experts recommend focusing on simple, accessible exercises that can be fun for kids, such as imagining blowing up a balloon to practice breathing or walking mindfully. Remind children that they can use these habits whenever they need to—including at bedtime.