So, we know that toddler brains- and more accurately age 2-6- are largely operating in alpha and theta frequencies (decreases dramatically by the time we reach adulthood).
These are the frequencies adults achieve in hypnosis and meditation. They are highly suggestible frequencies which is why we say little ones “absorb things like a sponge”, because they are basically in hypnosis taking the things around them in without being influenced by any internal critical bias. Their brains are wide open!
The thing about these frequencies is that they are extremely powerful “superchargers” and can decrease the need for sleep, which is noticeably different from the delta frequency dwelling 0-2 year olds (adults experience delta frequencies in deep sleep).
Setting the science recap aside, we can look to Zen- neither a religion nor a philosophy, but a way of being- to capitalize on the busy little one’s state. Now you’ll really laugh out loud when you think of your toddler as a Zen guru, but seriously, the theta state is the whole goal of Zen.
As BBC researchers put it: “Zen is meditation.” And as the Dalai Lama iterated, “Sleep is the best meditation.”
But then look ever so slightly deeper and you’ll realize your toddler is actively working out the 4 tenets or Four Noble Truths of Zen: Life is suffering, suffering is caused by desire, we must stop desire, and desire can be stopped while following the Eightfold Path.
I know, that last one is a bear, it’s like those math problems you were assigned in seventh grade where you only have 10 to do but each one has part a-z.
So here’s the breakdown- because you and your toddler are on totally different wavelengths, here’s the 10 tricks from Zen to maximize those zzz’s.
1) “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” – Buddha
Translation? Routine. Find a basic one and stick to it. It starts cuing their suggestible minds in to learning to settle. The less stimulating this routine can be, the better. A bath is a great place to start! Keep the lights low and sing softly; keeping both lights and volumes down will naturally allow for melatonin to take over and soothing sleep to begin.
2) “The noble minded are calm and steady. Little people are forever fussing and fretting.” – Confucius
This speaks to the last point but bears keeping in mind as a point all its own: make sure to relax before bed. Allow those busy minds to trail off into something calmer, and it’s your job to set the stage! Use yourself as a barometer here, if it feels calming to you, it feels calming to them (soothing music, reading a quiet book, wearing something comfortable).
3) “Don’t seek, don’t search, don’t ask, don’t knock, don’t demand- relax.” – Osho
Be willing to find a balance of setting a bedtime and going with the flow. Toddlers will have times, just like you do, where you’re tired at 5PM and bedtime is no trouble at all, and other times where they want to party all night long and show no signs of stopping by 9 or 10PM! This is your chance to both hold on to your routines that do work, even if it takes a little longer sometimes, and let go of your emotions where you may really want your child to sleep. Cut yourself and cut them some slack, go into observe mode- maybe you’ll notice a bit of delirium (if they’re running in circles “amped” up or having rapidly vacillating emotions), or maybe they’re really drowsy but can’t stop tossing and turning and they’re wanting to get to sleep just as much as you want them to. Just observe. You can draw conclusions in the morning, there’s nothing “to do” other than wait it out and be a force of calm in their life!
4) “Life begins where fear ends.” – Osho
Well, in this case, sleep begins where fear ends! Your toddler will absolutely not sleep if they are fearful, or stressed. That’s why it’s important to consider their sleep several hours before they are actually stepping into bed. It is true that life begins where fear ends- when fear (and humans experience fear/stress from the others around them- are YOU stressed?- and from perceived scenarios like a scary TV show or advertisement) enters the mind of any human, the brain shuts down non-necessary and non-beneficial (e.g. sleep) functions and floods the bloodstream with cortisol and adrenaline. It will continue to do this until the fear or stress is gone. Be thoughtful about the environment your toddler is in; and not everything is in your control (often we live with people who watch a show, or play a video game, that has things on it we ourselves wouldn’t be choosing for our children), so if after you’ve gone through and created a relatively stress free zone but it still isn’t “passing muster” for your toddler, build them a routine where they can minimize contact with the others who are not quite toddler friendly! It is essential for your little ones to feel and be safe.
5) “Think with your whole body.” – Taisen Deshimaru
Sleep is as sensory of an experience as it gets, so once it’s lights out, do your best to keep lights out. Toddlers return every hour to lighter sleep and often will wake themselves around this time (you may especially recognize this during the day with noticeably shorter or more restless naps). This is biological and related to the fact that their brains are growing at almost unfathomable speeds. No time for sleep mom and dad!!! It’s helpful to promote the idea of calm, peace, and restfulness and know that sleep will happen when it happens. Taking pressure off of bedtime also allows for much greater relaxation and your little one will be snoozing pleasantly before either of you know it. Find and share the aspects of bedtime you truly love, too (I love my robe; which sounds like a silly thing to say but it is the most comfortable item of clothing I know and I love it and my daughter knows that I look forward to putting on the robe before her bath time, that I love wearing it as we nestle in for a book or one last tower of blocks to build, etc) and your child will develop positive associations with bedtime. Positive emotions are as powerfully sustaining for the body as healthful foods. A body in balance will be a rested body, so bear with your toddler’s odd sleeping patterns by promoting general restfulness (and you’ll find that you’ll sleep better, too).
6) “A zen master’s life is one continuous mistake.” – Dogen
Know that you’re on a learning curve! As soon as you think you understand how your toddler sleeps, they’re up every hour like a newborn. As soon as you start to think you’ve failed, they start back on ten hours at night. Pay attention to their mood, and cultivate your own, so that the steadiness you all crave can be found emotionally. The physical will follow in time. When you can, seek support from your partner, friends, and family. Often there is a “toddler whisperer” somewhere in there; I found that my brother can get my daughter to sleep easier than anyone else. And while this is not an option for everyday, it is a relief to just have that knowledge. The best part about learning is that it gets easier and easier, so take care of yourself (I have my robe thing, I’m sure you have something you enjoy- maybe it’s sharing a sweet piece of fruit for dessert with your little one, or maybe it’s listening to some of your favorite gentle music) as you go and you’ll take delight in the journey AND set a great example for your little one.
7) “I’m in total harmony with my daily affairs.” – Layman Pang
So this is an affirmation worth repeating if your little one or you are big “clock checkers.” If your toddler likes checking his or her watch frequently, make sure it is put in a safe spot for the evening around dinner time. It really is worth the peace of mind (even if breaking this habit is initially confusing to your toddler); and keep yourself in check, too! Don’t worry too much at bedtime about the literal clock time. Easier said than done for some, but reassure yourself with the knowledge that at the most, you’ll be away from the clock for an hour-an hour and a half. But on most nights, toddlers will fall asleep between 15-30 minutes. So enjoy the break! And repeat: “I am in harmony with my daily affairs.” And so you will be.
8) “Obey the nature of things, and you will walk freely and undisturbed.” – Sengcan
This is a literal one. We are all part of nature (despite what the weird tangent our tech lives seem to be on these days), so we benefit from nature. For sleep, this means the sun! As much as possible throughout the day, get your toddler into the sunlight. And when possible, watch the sunset. These activities will naturally coordinate your rhythms to work with each other and with the seasons. It is normal for toddlers to stay up later when during summer months (in the Northern Hemisphere anyway), it is light for later. By being outside often, melatonin production will be naturally regulated (assisted by Vitamin D production, which is extra important in winter months- when we notice more depressed immune systems and get “cold and flu season”). A little bit goes a long way, especially when it’s very hot outside, but going out throughout the day for 10-30 minutes at a time seems to inspire peaceful sleep, especially with little ones.
9) “To have some deep feeling about Zen is not the point. We just do what we should do, like eating supper and going to bed.” – Shunryu Suzuki
To this end, make sure your toddler has had enough to eat. I usually will offer my daughter a small bit to eat after her bath because I’ve found that (especially when she’s going through a growth spurt), if I don’t offer, she will ask about 75% of the time. You know that you can’t sleep on an empty stomach; moreso for toddlers who, when they sleep, go into mega-growth mode (physically- their bodies and brains, and mentally/emotionally). Fortunately, this one is usually quite easily accomplished! You can even keep their plate with a little food from dinner to offer to them so you don’t have to prepare something different or stimulate them with the plethora of pantry and refrigerator options.
10) “You should sit and meditate for twenty minutes. Unless you’re too busy; then you should sit and meditate for an hour.” – Zen Proverb, Unknown Origin
So this is mostly just a funny (and ultra true for those that practice meditation) quote; the tip here is to avoid caffeine. This is pretty common sense in drinks such as tea or coffee, but make sure you’re practicing this with chocolate as well! Chocolate may be a great and popular dessert item, but in the hours before bed, even the small amount of caffeine is too stimulating. Sugar is the same way, so if sweets are what your toddler seems to crave, it’s a good time for fruit that has plenty of fibers so the sugars are digested in a balanced way.
Now you can zen your toddler’s way into more and optimal zzz’s!