“Why do bedtime prayers help a child’s healthy brain development?” Molly asked.
Molly is one of my students at Covenant Theological Seminary. I teach Master’s-level counselors about how faith and neuroscience can interact to solve problems in abnormal psychology.
Molly has three children, age 6, 4, and 3 years old. She was responding to a comment I’d made about the importance of parents praying with their children as they drop off to sleep.
“Is there any neuroscience behind prayers at bedtime helping kids develop?”
The short answer is, yes, neuroscience supports the importance of prayers at bedtime for all of us, especially young children. Let’s take a look.A 2003 study of 671 pediatricians found that as many as 10% of their patients had pediatric insomnia that required treatment  and some studies place this much higher. Many of these children had attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and daytime behavioral problems. While this research did not examine causal relationships between insomnia and daytime problems, other studies have [2-5].
Children with habitual pediatric insomnia are unable to self-soothe to fall to sleep or get back to sleep after they wake up during the night. They will cry for Mom or Dad and when they are older, get out of bed and come into their parents’ bedroom. All children do this occasionally or when they’re ill, but children with pediatric insomnia have developed neural networks that have made these behaviors into hard-to-change habits.
Self-soothing for a full-term infant begins to develop about 12 weeks after birth. It’s an early marker of healthy brain development and extends well beyond sleep behavior into all behavioral domains.
Infant sleep behavior is important for parents to address because it sets the stage for healthy personal agency. It’s an early naturally-occurring interaction between parent and child that gives the parent a wonderful opportunity to shape healthy behavior. It’s also important to realize that unhealthy sleep habits are not easily outgrown.
“So, what should a parent do? How can I help my kids?”
Brain-Restorative Sleep begins with sleep hygiene and takes advantage of natural cues to trigger the brain to go to sleep. Here are some guidelines:
- Set a planned wake-up time and stick to it as best you can. Good sleep is the result of synchronization of all our internal clocks. A child’s brain and nervous system go through natural cycles linked to the rising and setting sun, which gradually changes through the seasons. Her brain adapts to these changes to get the sleep that she needs.
- Set a planned bedtime and stick to it as best you can, very gradually postponing bedtime as the child matures.
- Put your child to bed when she is sleepy, but not before planned bedtime. If there is a struggle, monitor sleepiness and put her to bed when fatigue is likely to result in sleep. Use “bedtime fading”  to adjust her bedtime gradually so that it coincides with the onset of sleep, and then stick to that bedtime.
- Maintain consistent environmental cues that signal bedtime. This helps your child’s brain synchronize all of the mechanisms that need to be coordinated to fall asleep quickly. Low lights to preserve melatonin and soothing music provide signals to the brain to get ready to sleep. A stuffed animal that specializes in sleep such as a sloth or a cat lives only in the child’s bed and is a constant sleep companion. Other stuffed animals or dolls and toys are only for playtime and live on the floor or toy-box or shelf.
- Maintain a consistent bedtime routine that your child can gradually take more responsibility for as she matures. A warm bath, fresh diaper and quiet stories will be the responsibility of Mom or Dad for the first few years, while drying off after a bath and donning her pajamas can become the toddler’s responsibility.
- In addition to praise, provide tangible recognition for remaining in bed until it’s time to get up. A simple example would be to stamp a chart when she wakes up the next morning. Before bed, the toddler can choose which reward she will get the next day; a yawning dog, a sleepy cat, or a cow jumping over the moon. The preschool child can learn to reward herself the next day.
“Okay, these are all terrific, but I was really interested in why bedtime prayers are so important for brain development!” Molly is sometimes impatient.
Bedtime prayers help to develop dominant neural networks that guide your child’s emotional development.
“OK, but how do I do that?”
Make bedtime prayers part of a guided-relaxation approach to sleep. This is the childhood version of Personal Prayer Relaxation that I teach adults who have problems with insomnia.
Parents can use Guided Relaxation Prayer for children of all ages. I’ll show you how to do it in my next blog.
For more information about the intersection of faith and neuroscience in our daily lives, read Your Faithful Brain: Designed for so Much More! For more information about Brain-Restorative Sleep for people of all ages, and for counselors who would like to provide Brain-Restorative Sleep services, please contact us at www.faithfulbrain.com.
- Owens, J.A., C.L. Rosen, and J.A. Mindell, Medication use in the treatment of pediatric insomnia: results of a survey of community-based pediatricians. Pediatrics, 2003. 111(5): p. e628-e635.
- Owens, J.A. and J.A. Mindell, Pediatric insomnia. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 2011. 58(3): p. 555-569.
- Owens, J.A. and S. Moturi, Pharmacologic treatment of pediatric insomnia. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 2009. 18(4): p. 1001-1016.
- Curatolo, P., E. D’Agati, and R. Moavero, The neurobiological basis of ADHD. Ital J Pediatr, 2010. 36(1): p. 79.
- Mindell, J.A., et al., Pharmacologic management of insomnia in children and adolescents: consensus statement. Pediatrics, 2006. 117(6): p. e1223-e1232.
- Taylor, D.J. and B.M. Roane, Treatment of insomnia in adults and children: a practice‐friendly review of research. Journal of clinical psychology, 2010. 66(11): p. 1137-1147.