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How to Calm Your Child at Bedtime: One Simple Practice

If you have difficulty settling your child at bedtime because he’s hyperactive or excited, this game will help bring him into a more regulated state conducive to sleep. It can also help calm him after a tantrum, or when he’s emotionally distraught or unable to control his behaviour.

This game helps you to tap directly into your child’s nervous system and create a calming and regulating effect—which is essential before behaviour can change. And it’s especially powerful because it’s a game you play together—so it can calm your own nervous system as well, enabling your child to co-regulate with you. (See this blog post for why your child can’t self-regulate, but rather, needs to co-regulate with you.)

A Bedtime Game: Favourite Things

This game is effective because the very gentle sensory stimulation helps your child to become more embodied—to feel his own body and sensations, which soothes the nervous system. It works to activate the areas of the body that are innervated by the ventral vagus nerve, causing a calming effect.

As you’re playing the game, remember to focus on enjoying the experience of the sensations, and without intending to change your child’s behaviour. This is a curious exploration, not a prescription.

How to play:

  • Snuggle up comfortably where you won’t be interrupted, maybe on the sofa or on your child’s bed.
  • One person starts, and then you’ll take turns.
  • During your turn, identify and describe in detail (while noticing the feelings of pleasure), a “favourite thing” in your immediate environment that you can see, smell, or hear. Environmental things will be outside of yourself, such as the stuffy on your child’s bed, or the way the sun is shining through the window, a bird singing, the smell of the freshly baked cookies on the counter.
  • Take turns identifying favourite things outside of yourself, until you’ve both identified 2 or 3 things. (Tip: It’s helpful to slowly scan the room, taking in the details of items around you—this slow neck and eye movement is calming for the nervous system).
  • Next, repeat the process of finding favourite things, but inside of yourself.
  • Examples could be: feeling the softness of the blanket, or how strong and cushiony the bed or sofa feels underneath you, the feeling of having a fully tummy, the soft feeling of hair on your face or of your stuffy or the cat when you pet him, the warmth or softness of the dog when he snuggles with you.
  • Key points:
    • This game is most effective when you have no agenda to change behaviour, and when you fully engage in it yourself, role modeling expanding on the details and sensations and really taking in the pleasurable feelings that you’re noticing.
    • The magic is in noticing the details of your sensations and sharing them!
    • TIP for extra calming: When noticing the “inside things”, gentle stimulation of the face, hands and arms with—which are specifically innervated by the ventral branch of the vagus nerve—with something like a soft stuffie, can activate the ventral vagus nerve, helping your child to feel safe, connected, and calmer.

Watch for signs in your child (or yourself) that your nervous system is gearing down. These could be the face softening, a sigh or a yawn, or a slowing of movement and energy level.

Make sure to use a soft voice, loving eye contact, and to bring your attention, as much as possible, into your own body and sensations. Because these activities stimulate the ventral vagus nerve in a way that promotes safety and comfort, they promote a feeling of connection with you, and down-regulate your child’s (and your) nervous system so that his can come into alignment with yours. These practices ensure that your child feels safe (at the nervous system level), thereby enabling him to connect with himself and you.

If you notice your child starting to become more active again after initially calming down, you may wish to play again.

A reminder about the science:

Physiology MUST change first, by working directly with the nervous system.

Behaviour change follows:  Your child is physiologically capable of calming herself because her nervous system is regulated and she feels safe, and she follows your influence because the two of you are connected.

Questions? Please post below! I’m super-excited about how this nervous system information has changed my parenting practice, my relationship with my son, and the parents with whom I’ve shared it. Also, if you try out this game, I’d love to hear how it works out for you. How did your child respond? How did you feel during and after the game?

References:

Porges, Stephen W. The Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. (2017). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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