The authors of a new bedtime story book share tips on how to achieve a calm bedtime routine
Christy Kirkpatrick, co-author of The Sleepy Pebble and Other Stories: Calming Tales to Read at Bedtime, talks to sleep expert Professor Alice Gregory about the importance of sleep and a calm bedtime routine.
I have always loved my sleep, but until I had children, I didn’t realise quite how much. With uninterrupted nights a distant memory, I began to long for early nights and long stretches of blissful, deep sleep.
I know that I’m not alone in this; the amount of sleep we get is discussed by parents and carers across the city. Alice Gregory Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, explains why. She tells me, ‘we spend around a third of our lives asleep, so evolutionarily this only makes sense if it’s incredibly important. Scientific research over the years has confirmed that this is the case. Sleep plays a big role in so many aspects of our lives, supporting our learning, memory, immune system and emotional regulation, to name just a few. It is also the case that pretty much every psychiatric disorder has been linked to the way we sleep.’ This might help to explain why parents and carers can find it hard when they don’t get enough sleep.
What I hadn’t realised, until Professor Gregory explained it to me, was how important sleep was, not only for adults, but for children, too. ‘If you look at recommendations for the amount of sleep that we should get at different stages of life, you will see a trend for this decreasing across the life course. Recommendations from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine state that children aged 1-2 years of old should get 11-14 hours sleep in a 24 hour period, which decreases to 8-10 hours during the teenage years (aged 13-18 years). (jcsm.aasm.org). Children need a lot of sleep because it is so important for their growth and development.’
So sleep appears to be important for children’s daytime functioning, but getting our children to sleep at a decent time in the evening can be easier said than done. Often, even though children are tired in the evening, they can find it hard to nod off. 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. They may be excited by a movie they have watched, or game they have played. Their minds are racing, and it’s hard for them to become sleepy.
I ask Professor Gregory if there is anything that we can do to help children relax and unwind at bedtime. She tells me that there are a number of things ways we can help. 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 – in case they lie in bed awake for a long time (which should be avoided). We should 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 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 signed up 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. We’ve been bowled over by the positive feedback since we published the book.
Now I know how important sleep is for children, I do my best to get my children to get a good night’s sleep. It’s not always straightforward, though, and 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.
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. To find out more, visit nobrow.net.