Mindfulness Training Helps Kids Sleep Longer, Study Shows
Leela Magavi, M.D., Psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director at Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers explains the benefits of mindfulness and how to make it an approachable, positive experience, for children.
- Kids from low-income households who learned how to practice mindfulness at school gained an extra 74 minutes of sleep time, on average, according to a new study.
- Time spent in REM sleep, which is important for emotional well-being, also went up for many children who participated in mindfulness training.
- Children who don’t 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 has resulted in shortages of sleep for just about everyone—including kids. But a new study has found something that might help little ones rest easier: mindfulness training.
New research from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that a diverse group of children from low-income households slept more than an hour longer each night after learning mindfulness training at their elementary schools for two years. The experiment also boosted the duration of kids’ rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is important for emotional well-being and resilience.1
For the report, a team of researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine set out to learn how mindfulness training could impact sleep in children. They recruited 115 children in third and fifth grade at two elementary schools in Northern California for a study. Their communities had “historically high rates of violence and crime,” which have previously been shown to increase stress in kids.
All participants came from low-income households, many of which were considered “extremely low-income,” and nearly all the 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 group had a slightly higher proportion of boys than girls.
The researchers split the participants into two groups. The 57 children in the control group participated in their usual physical education class, while the 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 taught the students practices such as paced breathing and yoga-inspired mindful movement.
All children wore a device that recorded snoring, breathing, body position, eye movements, and other sleep-related activities each night before bedtime. They were surveyed on their stress levels and psychosocial functioning. Those who participated in the mindfulness program were also asked how much they liked health and wellness practices and whether they use the breathing practices outside of class.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that mindfulness training made a remarkable impact on children’s sleep, boosting total sleep time by an average of 74 minutes per night. Kids who said they used the breathing exercises outside of the classroom tended to experience the biggest increases in total sleep. In contrast, kids in the control group experienced a 64-minute drop in total sleep time, on average, by the end of the study.1
“The results show that mindfulness training gives children the tools to calm the nervous system in preparation for sleep,” says Ricky Thompson, MA, LMHC, a counselor at Thriveworks Jacksonville in Florida.
What’s more, children who participated in the mindfulness program also had 24 additional minutes of REM sleep each night, compared with no REM changes in the control group.1 This type of sleep is when dreams occur, and may play an important role in learning, storing memories, and stabilizing moods, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.2
Tools for At-Risk Kids
Experts say the findings of this study offer evidence that mindfulness could be an effective way to help all children, but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, counteract the impact of stress on their sleep and overall health.
“These are children who probably live in a state of fear—where are they going to sleep, when is their next meal, and other survival fears. When you can move the nervous system out of a state 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.
Furthermore, the fact that mindfulness can be of little to no cost to learn, and completely free to practice, makes it more accessible to low-income families.
“Children from disadvantaged backgrounds can practice mindfulness throughout the day and any day without feeling guilty about the monetary impact it may have on their family. Children are highly intuitive and often feel guilty as they acknowledge that their family is struggling and fear that treatment options may burden their family,” says Leela R. Magavi, MD, regional medical director for Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers.
She adds that mindfulness helps children become more aware of their stress and offers them tools for managing their feelings, which not only improves sleep, but also offers a number of other health benefits.
“Recognition of external stressors can aid children in disparate ways,” says Dr. Magavi. “In fact, awareness is the heart of mindfulness and allows children to combat stress, insomnia, anxiety, and depression.”
Plus, getting adequate sleep is critical in children’s development. Kids who get the proper amount of sleep have better focus, concentration, and academic performance. Those who don’t sleep enough face a higher risk of mental health conditions, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other concerns.3
Practicing Mindfulness at Home
Most public schools in the U.S. don’t offer mindfulness training programs like the one in 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 mindfulness practices with their children with simple breathing exercises,” says Thompson. “Mindful breathing changes energy from tension to relaxation.”
You can also take your child’s mindfulness training outdoors, such as in a backyard or city park, and help them find ways to notice the present moment.
“Parents can engage in mindful walks with their children and observe the colors, sounds, smells, and sensations together,” says Dr. Magavi.
She has also had success using visualizations and meditation exercises to teach mindfulness to young children in the clinic.
Dr. Magavi continues: “I ask toddlers and preschool-age kids to envision a big balloon that they hope to create. I ask them to breathe in slowly and deeply to ensure the balloon will be big, and then breathe out very slowly, so the balloon does not pop. When they are upset, I ask them to make a balloon. At home, their parents do the same thing, and consequently, meditation becomes their fun and familiar coping skill.”
Aim to keep the practices simple and fun. The more you can make mindfulness an approachable, positive experience, the more likely it is that children can develop these tools and use them when they most need them—like falling asleep at night.
What This Means For You
If the pandemic (or another stressful event) is disrupting your child’s sleep, you might consider teaching them mindfulness practices. New research shows that kids were able to sleep more than an hour longer after participating in a mindfulness training program at school for 2 years.
While most public schools don’t have mindfulness programs, kids can still develop these skills at home with the help of a parent or caregiver. Experts recommend focusing on simple, approachable exercises that can be fun for kids, like imagining blowing up a balloon to practice breathwork or taking mindful walks. Remind children they can use these practices whenever they need them—including at bedtime.