“In our modern civilization, where all eyes concentrate on outer, material things, no attention is given to the state of sleep, although man devotes to it one third of his daily life. Never should it be thought that man is inactive while he sleeps. He is inactive only in so far as the outer external world is concerned but as regards to the health of his body, and more especially in the health of his soul and spirit, sleep is all important. True education can provide for a right life of sleep, for whatever activities belong to a man’s waking hours are carried over into the conditioned of sleep, and this is especially the case with the child.”
Rudolf Steiner, The Modern Art of Education
Sleep is a challenge for many young families. Indeed, much of our nation is sleep deprived. Yet, sleep is not an issue unto itself and cannot be separated from the other aspects of our daily lives. Nutrition, warmth, daily rhythms, physical activity and the quality of our sensory impressions (playing outdoors, watching TV, playing video games, etc.) all help form our sleep life. Healthy, repetitive and reverent rhythms lay the foundation for rest and put children in tune with the cycles of life and their own bodies.
Infants and children require much more sleep than adults to nourish their souls and bodies. While pediatricians recommend 12-15 hours of sleep per day for children between the ages of 1 and 5 years, research shows that children sleep much less today than years ago. A study conducted in the 1930’s found that the average time in bed at night for all children was 11 hours, excluding naps. More recent findings indicate that one-and-a-half- and two-year-olds are averaging 10.5 to 11 hours of sleep per day (including naps), and that preschool-aged children sleep a mere 9.5 hours a day.
Many experts recommend early dinners (before or around 6 o’clock) to help the body prepare for sleep. In her article, “The Importance of Sleep,” Susan R. Johnson, M.D. explains that when we eat just before bed, our sleep is less restorative because the body is taken from its normal processes and made to digest food. When the sun sets, the liver begins to store sugars (glycogen) for the next day. Staying up late alters the liver’s metabolism. Rather than store sugar, the liver must break down the glycogen, causing a second wind and depleting our energy for the next day. As a result, our body releases stress hormones that increase heart rate and blood pressure and suppress immunity. Sleep deprivation also affects movement, making children overactive and less purposeful. This “second wind” is why it is so much easier for a child to fall asleep at 7:30 than at 9 o’clock. It should also be noted that the sleep that we get before midnight is most restorative.
Dr. Johnson’s prescription for healthy sleep includes early dinner times, less sugars and fats at night and no food immediately before bed. The process of digestion makes the dreamy portion of sleep longer and more active, reducing our overall rest. A child who is digesting food while he is digesting the day often has vivid and frightening dreams at night. Yet, many children wake during the night seeking food or drink. Experts agree that children are able to sustain themselves through the night on the food and drink they’ve taken in through the day and that the desire for night feedings is learned behavior. More than sustenance, the child seeks the comfort of the food or drink as well as the presence of the mother or father. “It should be stressed that asking for milk or juice during the night is not a reflection of a physiological need because by 6 months, all full-term, healthy, normally growing children are able to obtain all their necessary food intake during the day.” (Minde)
An early dinner also allows for an earlier, more consistent bedtime. When a child goes to bed at 8 o’clock one day and 10 the next, his or her body has no sense of inner rhythm and it is difficult to fall asleep. Bedtime rituals can evolve around hygiene and bonding. Parents can help their children relax at bedtime by doing the same preparations in the same way at the same time every night. One simple story from a book, or better yet an oral tale, can be told again and again for weeks. This allows the child’s mind to calm and relax into sleep. When we watch TV or read many books before bed, the child’s mind is filled with images and he is less able to relax. Bedtime provides an opportunity to create meaningful rituals that will nourish our bodies and spirits and strengthen our family bonds. A poem, prayer or verse could be recited as you tuck in your little ones. This quiet, reverent time of the day lends itself to creative rituals that are soothing, affirming and uniting.
At LifeWays, our nap time ritual begins as we come into our dimly lit suite after washing our lunch dishes. The children look at books and tuck in their babies while I tend to diapering and preparing the space for nap. We all brush teeth together, singing “Brush, brush, brush, up and down. Brush, brush, brush, all around. Brush your teeth and brush your tongue. Brush your teeth and brush your gums.” When we’ve finished brushing teeth, the children lie in their beds and wait for the arrival of the fire fairies. I turn off the lamp and light our story candle. Then, I tuck each child in and (with a bit of lavender oil) I trace their face and say, “The moon is round. It has two eyes and knows [nose] no sound.” Then I sit in my rocking chair and strum the lyre as I tell our seasonal tale “from the heart.” The ritual is always the same, and the story is repeated day after day for weeks or months. We wake with similar, soothing rituals – slowly illuminating the suite, making beds, diapering, brushing hair, and washing hands and faces. Our rest is embraced with loving, meaningful activities.
At home, we have a simple dinner around 5:30 followed immediately with a bath. While Elliot plays in the tub, I dim the lights in his room, diffuse lavender essential oils, prepare the humidifier and warm up his room with the help of the space heater. After bath, we have family time in the warm and cozy room, enjoying each others’ company and winding down after an eventful day. In the winter, we apply calendula oil to the skin before dressing for bed in warm, natural-fiber pajamas. After he is dressed, we read a story and have a sip of milk before it is time to climb into bed. After hugs and kisses and tucking in, I sit nearby and sing a lullaby. The I say goodnight and leave our little one to fall asleep on his own in the comfort of his bedroom and in the company of his “blue baby” doll. By now, it is 7 o’clock and mama and papa are ready to enjoy some grown-up time.
Anyone who has ever seen Supernanny can tell you that bedtime can be a frustrating and chaotic time of the day for many families. But this could (and should) be a reverent, restful time for everyone. To create a peaceful and harmonious environment, we (as caregivers and parents) are called to be introspective and creative and know that we are involved in a process in which there are no simple or easy answers. We should expect that the solutions to our problems will come gradually as soon as we are willing to take a more holistic approach.
Jaimmie Stugard has been a caregiver at the Milwaukee LifeWays Center for over ten years. She is grateful that she is able to bring her own little ones with her to LifeWays each day. She is also the music teacher in the Wisconsin LifeWays Training.
Acebo, Christine et. al. “Estimating Sleep Patterns With Activity Monitering in Children and Adolescents,” Sleep 1999; 22: 95-103.
Baldwin Dancy, Rahima. You Are Your Child’s First Teacher. (Berkely, CA: Celestial Arts, 1989).
Garvey, Chester Roy. The Activity of Young Children During Sleep: An Objective Study. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1939).
Johnson, Susan R. M.D. “The Importance of Sleep.” (www.waldorflibrary.org/Journal_Articles/GW4003.pdf).
Minde, Klause, M.D., F.R.C.P.C. “Sleep Disorders in Infants and Young Children.” Infant and Toddler Mental Health. ed. J Martin Maldonado-Duran M.D. (WA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2002).
Steiner, Rudolf et. al. Education as an Art. (NY: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1970).
Steiner, Rudolf. The Modern Art of Education. (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1928).
Steiner, Rudolf. “The Three Stages of Sleep.” (http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/ThrStg_index.html).