THURSDAY, July 8, 2021 (HealthDay News) — Children tend to sleep less as they approach early adolescence, perhaps because of the pressures of homework and the presence of social media.
Now, new research suggests that loss of precious slumber is not inevitable.
The researchers found that a school-based program in mindfulness training — which involves being present in the moment, deep breathing and yoga movements — helped at-risk children not only curb that loss in sleep, but to gain more rest than they had before.
“There is a lot of evidence showing physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness practice and mind-body integration practices such as yoga and breath work,” said Christina Chick, a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, in California. “It’s important that we were able to demonstrate that this particular program was beneficial to kids.”
The study focused on children who lived in two low-income, primarily Hispanic communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. One group received mindfulness instruction and the other was the control group. Both communities had stressors that can contribute to poor sleep, including high rates of crime and violence, as well as food insecurity and crowded, unstable housing.
More than 1,100 children participated in the study starting in the 3rd and 5th grades. The study used the PurePower Curriculum that was developed by the nonprofit PureEdge, Inc. The research team then recruited 58 of the children who had used the curriculum and 57 children from the control group for sleep assessments in their homes.
Each of children wore a cap of electrodes placed on their head that measured brain activity, breathing, heart rate and blood oxygen levels in sleep during three assessments — one prior to the start of the curriculum, and then one and two years later.
For unknown reasons, the children in the control group community had more sleep, on average, prior to the start of the study. Children in the group that was to receive the curriculum got about 6.6 hours of sleep a night.
Over the two years, however, the kids in the control group lost hours of sleep, about 63 minutes per night. Their REM sleep was steady, the findings showed.
Meanwhile, the kids who received the curriculum gained 74 minutes more per night. They also gained 24 minutes of REM sleep, which helps consolidate memories.
“We thought it would help, but we were really struck by the magnitude of the results,” Chick said. “I think the protection against the loss of sleep time is really encouraging.”
The students received the training during their physical education time twice a week for about two years. They were encouraged to use the techniques to help them rest and relax, but not given any sleep advice.
Among the lessons kids learned was a breathing exercise in which they traced the shape of one hand using the index finger from their other hand while taking five deep, slow breaths, imagining that their hand was a starfish.
The curriculum became more scientific as the children grew older, such as using nasal breathing to “hack” the nervous system.
“It really gave them the insight and understanding about how to have more self-mastery, and that was integrated with mindful awareness,” Chick said. “For example, they were asked, ‘How do you feel? How do you feel in your body when you breathe more deeply?'”
The researchers hypothesized that the children were sleeping better because they had reduced their stress, though the children who gained the most sleep reported increases in stress. It is possible that the curriculum helped them understand what stress was, the study authors suggested.
According to Dr. Cora Breuner, a professor in pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the University of Washington and an attending physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, “The biggest gift we can give our children is the gift of getting to sleep and transitioning to that twilight time of uncertainty into a restful night.” She was not involved in the study.
Sleep is a time of growth for children, Breuner explained, and provides much more than that for people of all ages, including regenerating neurons and letting the body recover from whatever activities or stressors it experienced during the day.
“Being able to use some kind of skill to focus yourself internally will allow you to use your own natural resources to help you get to sleep,” Breuner said.
Though a person may not be able to control much when trying to fall asleep at night, they do have control over their own breathing and can also learn to pay attention to and then let go of racing thoughts, she added.
The findings were published online July 6 in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
Chick said, “I’m pleased with the decision that we started this program relatively young, relatively early in their lives, because the goal would be for these skills to be sort of second nature to draw upon in times of stress. It’s really difficult to learn how to self-regulate when you’re undergoing a period of stress.”
The Sleep Health Foundation has more on mindfulness and sleep.
SOURCES: Christina Chick, PhD, postdoctoral scholar, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine, Palo Alto, Calif.; Cora Breuner, MD, MPH, professor, pediatrics/adolescent medicine, and adjunct professor, orthopedics and sports medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, and attending physician, Seattle Children’s Hospital; Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, July 6, 2021, online