We all know that when we don’t sleep well, we don’t act as well as we should; we feel more stressed and anxious. That goes double for our children. Then feel free to multiply that stress and anxiety by whatever you want if our children also have additional needs.
Children who don’t get enough sleep, are more prone to be overweight, suffer from mental health issues such as depression and impulsive behavior, and are less likely to do well in school. There’s good news, though. Doing yoga as part of a bedtime routine can help everyone stress and anxiety. Additionally, it can help us get quality sleep.
Building a bedtime routine is one of the best things we can do for children. It helps trigger the brain to release melatonin which make us feel sleepy. The routine can include anything from an electronics-free hour to showering and brushing teeth before bed. A calming bedroom environment may also help. Check mattress reviews to see if they’re sleeping on a bed that suits their size, preferred temperature and sleeping position.
Adding yoga to that routine has been found to be incredibly beneficial to both mental health and sleep cycles. US studies in rural high school who did yoga daily over a semester, were found to be more resilient, to have more control over their anger, and to be less fatigued at the end of the study.
The longer the practice, the more of an effect yoga has – and the more it helps; A 2009 study in the Biological Psychology Journal yoga showed that regular yoga practice helps with stress relief by modulating cortisol. Less stress enables us to sleep better.
“The sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is often engaged when children, similar to adults are exposed to sensory overload”. (Gururaja&Harano, 2011).
Although you can use very simple yoga techniques regularly to help promote sleep, there are also benefits of taking children to regular yoga sessions. The physical practices of yoga offer an opportunity for children to self-regulate through the gentle art of breathing techniques which are employed in yoga at various times, such as during the positions/asanas, at the beginning and end of sessions and prior to relaxation.
Asanas (postures) which reduce stimulus, such as child pose, (lying on the stomach with head lowered) and corpse/savasana/relaxation pose can all help.
Other benefits gained include strengthening and lengthening of muscles and skeletal system in areas that may lack tone, which can encourage greater stability. Available research confirms that physical well-being integrated from yoga practices leads to benefits such as: “Calming the heart rate, which signals the brain to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.Similarly, yoga can guide relaxation because it reduces sympathetic activity”. (Vempati & Telles, 2002).
Simple yoga breathing practices can help to alleviate stress, pain and calm the nervous system. During sessions there is particular attention paid to the out breath, to encourage a release of tension.
Three examples of breathing techniques are:
- A. Belly breathing. Sitting, breathing with hands resting on the stomach and allowing the breath gently in and out and feeling the stomach rising and falling like a balloon inflating and deflating.
- B. Visualisation. Lying down, a guided visualisation, as they breath in the children think ‘let’ and as they breathe out, think ‘go’.
- C. Alternate Nostril Breathing. In yoga the left side of the body is associated with luna (cooling, calming energy) and the right the solar (heating, energising). So if you lead with the left, this is going to calm the energetic body. In this practice you begin by closing the right nostril and inhaling through the left, then closing the left nostril and exhaling through the right. Encouraging a deeper slower breath will naturaly calm the mind and starting on the left side will deepen the benefits. Watch here ( they suggest 3 breaths on each side, which is fine, I’ve found swapping on each breath more beneficial, but may be more fiddly.)
Benefits are further enhanced with gentle, vocal, ohms into and out of the postures, the breathing allows the body to expand and contract in an artful flow.
Stressed, tired children can present with shallow breathing or even reverse breathing. (Reverse Breathing is demonstrated by the breath in, where the stomach can flatten, or in some cases by no discernible movement of the ribcage or stomach at all. E.G. The balloon deflates on the inhale and may hardly inflate on the exhale.) If you notice either of these, Technique A above, and getting the child to breath down into their stomach can help these conditions.
There are many, many yogic breathing techniques to choose from that can be used to aid self-regulation. At the end of a session inviting the children to lie on their backs or fronts, breathe as indicated in the Technique B, above, and through the use of guided relaxation techniques encourage further release, playing relaxing music can increase wellbeing. Not only the clients/students benefit during sessions, but carers too can receive benefit if they are present
As Elheringer (2011) attests:
‘Yoga can improve focus and attention, sensory information processing, communication, self-regulation, and motor control’.
Often you can observe the calming effects of yoga on children’s over- worked nervous systems, simply by noticing how children initially enter sessions, to when they leave. It’s common for them to enter over-stimulated and unable to be still. By the end of the yoga session there is a visible relaxation of these behaviours. These moments allow an opportunity for self-regulation of the nervous system and mind, coupled with body integration, indicated by the ability to lie still and be present in calmer bodies. Many, many times children or carers fall asleep at during relaxation, which through regular practice will contribute to a deeper more restful night’s sleep.
In addition to the above you can try the following.
- Reflexology is the stimulation of pressure points on the hands and the feet and working with the big toes can be useful to aid sleep. Read more here.
- Applying pressure or stroking between the eyebrows and along the eyebrows – centre to outside – can help children close their eyes or fall asleep.
Elringer, J. (2010), Yoga for children on the Autism Spectrum. International Journal of Yoga Therapy.Vol.20, No.1 PP 131-139.
Gurura, D., Harano, K.,Toyotake, I., Kobayashi, H.(2011), ‘Effects of Yoga on mental health: comparative study between young and senior subjects in Japan’. International Journal of Yoga 4(1):7
Vempati , R.P. & Telles, S. (2002), Yoga-based guided relaxation reduces sympathetic activity, judged from baseline levels. Psychology Rep. 90(2):p.487-94
If you are interested in learning more practical skills to work with children you can check out our range of trainings courses with Special Yoga here.
Writers – Sam Kent & Claire Perriam