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The new Smiling Mind Sleep for Families Program, supported by Medibank, is full of tips, activities and meditations which are underpinned by these mindful mindsets. The program is designed for families to do together and to help parents support their children to develop sleep-supporting healthy habits, as well as navigate sleep challenges with a little more ease.
Let’s take a closer look at mindfulness and, in particular, how the often-overlooked attitudes or mindsets can support us and our children come bedtime. The new Sleep for Families Program, supported by Medibank, integrates five mindfulness mindsets, or attitudes, that can impact how parents and children sleep.
Mindfulness has been defined as paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity and non-judgment1. There are two equally important parts to this definition. The first part is about being able to connect more fully to the present moment. When we’re not paying attention to the present moment, our mind dwells in the future or the past; it’s like the brain’s default setting2,3. This tendency of the mind to wander (and to worry about the future or ruminate about the past) can prove problematic when trying to get to sleep.
The second and often overlooked part of mindfulness is the attitude we bring to the present moment - namely openness, curiosity and non-judgment. The cultivation of these mindsets opens a doorway to being more at ease with what we are experiencing in any given moment, be it comfortable or uncomfortable, which can be particularly helpful when it comes to sleep-related challenges4. Let’s explore how key mindful mindsets can each play a role in both our own and children's sleep.
Mindset 1: Awareness
Awareness involves the intentional observation of one's thoughts, feelings and sensory perceptions in the present moment, and is a core foundation of mindfulness5. Awareness tends to be relatively open in that we are simply noticing what’s showing up at any given moment. In this way, mindfulness is not about making things go away, and it's not about producing a particular state such as relaxation or changing how we’re feeling. Instead, we learn to hold our experience in awareness with non-judgmental observation.
When it comes to a great night's sleep, a good first step is cultivating greater awareness of some of the helpful and less helpful behaviours we do throughout our day. If we are moving through our days mindlessly stuck on autopilot, we may inadvertently be engaging in behaviours that are counterproductive when it comes to being ready for sleep. These might include consuming drinks high in sugar or caffeine close to bedtime, napping late in the day, being on devices/screens right up until it’s time for sleep, and engaging in physically and psychologically stressful activities right before bed6. This applies equally to ourselves and our children.
Mindset 2: Gratitude
One of the challenges we all face as it comes to the end of the day is our minds' natural tendency to get drawn into unhelpful thinking7. The human brain has evolved to be like velcro for negative experiences – they really stick – and to be on the lookout for threats and danger. Once upon time this was incredibly helpful and ensured our survival, but these days it often sees us replaying things over and over in our mind that didn’t go well or worrying about stuff that hasn’t actually happened. As you or your children may have experienced, this can be unhelpful at bed time and can get in the way of a good night's sleep.
Cultivating gratitude can help to gently adjust our brain's Negativity Bias by generating feelings of thankfulness and appreciation for the good in our lives8. Gratitude has been found to make us happier, as well as improve our relationships, overall health and importantly, sleep9. Best of all, gratitude is something the whole family can cultivate together.
Mindset 3: Non-striving
Given how important sleep is, and how most of us hope to fall asleep reasonably quickly, we can place undue pressure on ourselves and our children. The irony is, the harder we strive to get to sleep (or will our children to sleep) the less successful we often are10. This is where the mindful mindset of non-striving can come in handy.
You or your children mightn’t have heard this term before, but non-striving basically means to focus more on the process rather than the outcome11. We can still have a goal – in this case, falling asleep – but we hold this goal lightly. In this way, we don’t try to force ourselves to sleep. Rather we allow the body and mind to naturally make the transition.
Mindset 4: Acceptance
In the course of our daily lives we can waste a lot of energy denying and resisting what is already fact; trying to force situations to be the way we would like them to be, which can create more tension. Acceptance involves seeing things as they actually are in order to deal with them in the most skilful or helpful way12.
When sleep proves elusive, either for us or our children, frustration can arise. Often we start to worry about how long we or they have been lying awake and how much longer it might take to fall asleep – which can lead to us trying even harder. However, as mentioned above, this striving to fall asleep can be counterproductive13. Mindfulness encourages present moment awareness, non-judgment and acceptance to alleviate the distress that can arise during sleeplessness. Put another way, mindfulness supports us and our children to make peace with nighttime wakefulness. This might sound counterintuitive, and not particularly appealing for you as a parent, but it is the attachment to getting to sleep that can drive the sleep-related distress that keeps us awake14.
Mindset 5: Compassion for Self and Others
While it may be helpful to cultivate acceptance when faced with nighttime wakefulness, that’s not to say it is easy. It’s normal and natural to experience not only frustration but a wide range of other difficult thoughts and emotions at such times. As such, it can be valuable to extend compassion to yourself and your children.
Compassion is the feeling that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering15. It can be broken down to 3 parts – I understand, I feel for you, I want to help you. It’s a mixture of empathy and support. Self-compassion involves extending this same warmth and kindness to yourself16. Cultivating an attitude of compassion toward ourselves and others can create greater connection and ease in moments that need it the most.
7 Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological bulletin, 134(3), 383–403. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383
8 Kiken, L. G., & Shook, N. J. (2011). Looking up: Mindfulness increases positive judgments and reduces negativity bias. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(4), 425