How Play Promotes Sleep
By Liz Harden, MPH and Founder of Little Dipper Wellness
Liz, founder of Little Dipper Sleep, loves nothing more than helping parents—and their little ones—find the rest they need to thrive. After experiencing the misery of sleep deprivation with her first child, she went on a crusade to help herself, and as many other parents as possible, to be forever-well-rested (or at least never-again so sleep deprived!). She combined her Master’s training as a health educator and researcher and her background in yoga and mindfulness to launch a new career in sleep coaching. For the last decade, she has been a mindful pediatric and family sleep educator, teaching other parents about quality sleep as a fundamental component of healthy and happy living—saving them time, energy, and mental strife in doing so. Guided by her belief that everyone has a right to quality sleep, Little Dipper Sleep provides flexible, evidence-based and sliding scale sleep coaching options to families worldwide.
Play is important work for children, boosting creativity, strengthening cognitive, emotional, and physical strength, and improving dexterity, problem-solving, and so much more. But did you know that play also supports healthy sleep?
Frequent, daily play reduces anxiety and stress and elevates mood and self-esteem. And when parents engage in the play with their children, it bolsters their feelings of security as well. Ever tried to sleep when you’ve felt anxious or insecure? Not great, right? All of these feelings of emotional well-being are important when it comes to quality sleep—so the time you spend with your child in play, giving them your full attention, the fuller their security bucket will be at bedtime.
Now let’s talk about how play can foster an actual love of sleep and the sleep space. Spending lots of positive playtime together in your child’s bedroom and even in the crib/bed will help your child feel more comfortable and secure when it’s time to turn out the lights.
Here are 4 crib games that my babies loved...and how to recreate the fun with yours. You can easily adapt them for an open sleep space if your child sleep in a bed!
Play a peek-a-boo game where you duck behind the crib or doorway (anywhere out of your babies view) and say “where’s mommy/daddy?” and then pop back up and say “I’m back!” or any other salutation or peek-a-boo variation. This particular game eases separation anxiety, since it allows your baby to practice experiencing short periods of separation, in a very supportive and positive way, which is hugely helpful if your child experiences bedtime separation anxiety. You could also try hiding yourself under a baby blanket or lovey, and then popping out with a big smile. Your baby may want to emulate you and try their turn at hiding.
Face-to-face and Heart-to-heart.
Sit or lay on the floor so that your face is at crib level and have a little chat, blow kisses, sing a song, or play peek-a-boo. You could even offer kisses or a finger to hold through the crib slats. This way, you and your baby sit eye-to-eye and your baby will enjoy a deep connection with you while they are simultaneously laying or sitting in the crib. If your baby is pulling up on the crib rails, kneel or squat so that you remain face-to-face.
Horseplay can be okay too!
It’s been shown that positive, safe, and active play (aka roughhousing) is good for mental and physical health. This type of “horseplay” can improve outcomes in a host of areas including: forming secure attachments, emotional intelligence, mental flexibility, coordination, physical health, and even sleep. Studies show that roughhousing can lead to the production of oxytocin (the “love” or bonding hormone) in the same way that cuddling with a parent can. It’s often reassuring for those parents who prefer the active play (over the calm and nurturing rocking or snuggling that comes so naturally to others) to know that they can help their baby feel loved and secure too, by bouncing, tumbling, and flying around the bedroom! Just keep timing in mind. Ideally we won’t be engaging in active play in the 30-45 minutes before bed, so that the heart rate can slow down and the transition to sleep is easier.
Practice happy playtime in the sleep space every day.
Consistency helps both parents and baby, so add this playtime to the daily routine. Be sure to keep the lights bright and choose a time when your child isn’t already too sleepy. When playing these games, do your best to end the game before your child gets fussy. So keep an eye on your child’s response to play time and end the activities when you notice your little one is losing interest or getting a bit cranky.
Now that you’ve created a happy sleeping space for your child by engaging in tiny earth toys together, having dance parties, and blowing a few kisses around the room, your baby will begin to feel more at ease in the sleep space at bedtime. It may not happen overnight, but it will with consistent practice. Be sure to remove all play items such as toys, loose blankets, and stuffed animals from the crib or bed before sleepy time.
Remember, adjusting your baby’s expectations in any way takes time.
If your baby doesn’t respond happily to your efforts at positive playtime in the crib at first, don’t give up. They will adjust with a little more time and practice playing in the sleep space. Also, remember that babies are sponges, learning about the world from your actions and reactions.Therefore, if you express hesitance or anxiety, they'll pick up on that and learn that the crib is an anxiety-provoking place to be. Keep the mood upbeat and light.
Try one of these activities, and let us know how it goes!
From private sleep coaching packages, to self-paced Stellar Sleep courses, to their group program, The Stellar Sleep Squad – Little Dipper Sleep meets you where you are, helping you discover your “True North:” the sleep strategies that can work best for your unique family and your unique child, whether they are 4 days, 4 months, or 4 years old. Follow on instagram @littledippersleep or say "hi" at email@example.com. Sweet dreams!