Sleep – From a Parents Point of View
by David Tasker
(Reprinted with kind permission from Child and Man, Vol.28, No.1, Jan 1994)
A good friend of mine once surprised me by remarking that the nearest he has been to seeing angels is when he is in the bedroom of his sleeping children. Now this friend had until this moment not given the impression of any interest in the ‘spiritual’; and it now occurs to me how many people, who may appear to have a very hardened, materialistic approach to life, are able to experience a sense of wonder, of the sacred, in the presence of the sleeping child. Sleep, like its counter-point of death, remains one of the enigmas of our age, far beyond the description, let alone the understanding of our modem scientific methodology.
It is an interesting reflection on this methodology (based as it is on repeatable experimental measurements and results) that scientists should concentrate their study of sleep by the measurement of electrical discharges from electrodes attached to the heads of sleeping ‘laboratory patients’. Whilst it is comparatively easy to see the short-comings of this scientific method (because the intangible nature of sleep cannot satisfactorily be described by constrained tangible nature of physical science), I can personally vouch for the difficulties in embarking on the transition towards a science of the metaphysical. How can we understand and experience sleep and give meaning to this integral part of our life? It seems, at first hearing, to be a contradiction in terms to ask if we can be conscious in our sleeping life even though we have had glimpses of this consciousness in our dreams.
Sleep can be seen as some kind of voyage; we say ‘goodnight’ to someone, as when they are setting off on a journey. We trust that just as we ‘lose ourselves’ when we enter sleep, we will regain ourselves again on waking and, moreover, so will our family and loved ones. This trust is reinforced by our experiences which tell us that good quality sleep refreshes and invigorates our physical body as well as our thinking faculties. It is the great healer, not only for physical ailments but also for our feelings when they have been hurt; problems which have been slept-on can often be seen in a new light – in a more rounded and mature way.
Ask most parents about bringing up young children: and the trials of broken nights and poor sleep invariably figure in the conversation. The importance of good quality sleep is only fully appreciated when it is denied us and for many this situation arises after the birth of our first child. Just as we have to learn to cope as best we can with too little sleep and our resulting tiredness, irritability and loss of performance, we also find ourselves at the same time responsible for the ‘management’ of the sleep of our new offspring – in much the same way as we are responsible for managing their feeding. Both are concerned with different aspects of the child’s basic nourishment although good quality food and nutrition, perhaps because it is more readily understandable, tends to figure more prominently for parents than good quality sleep. Ingesting, digesting and excreting is the readily recognisable process for the nutritional cycle, and although few of us are able from our own experience to describe what happens when we sleep we can see that this process too is threefold, namely the preparation, the sleep (which itself has a threefold composition) and finally the recovery or restitution. Parents tend to have set views and procedures not only on the quality of food but also its preparation. Rhythms and regularity of mealtimes become important and children will usually be sitting still, often in a social grouping around a table and detached from the hurly-burly of life’s activities. We organise the food carefully and sometimes artistically on the plate and table. Most importantly we realise that good digesting, good nutrition and good health and development is contingent on what we eat and how we eat. Could we say that good sleep is equally contingent on preparation, and most importantly what of the day’s experiences we take with us (ingest) into sleep as well as how these are taken?
Bedtimes are notoriously difficult occasions for parents to aspire to heights of child-rearing excellence! One’s own tiredness, coupled with an over-tired child, or a child distracted by outside events – the comings and goings of older siblings, unexpected visitors – these can all be obstacles to the calm peaceful space of good sleep preparation. With the humility that comes from my fair share of bedtime ‘scenes’ with my own children I offer some observations on bedtime preparation. Regular routines and rhythms seem to be the primary goal, particularly for the child who finds sleep a lonely, frightening journey. To engender a bedtime mood, a mood which can encourage the journey from the full waking life to the realm of day-dreaming, is for me the greatest challenge. Withdrawing from the main living areas of the house to the bedrooms, often a problematic first step, can be lightened by making this into an imaginative game – a boat or train setting off and chugging its way along passages and stairs.
The most beautiful way of accompanying the child into the realm of day-dreams and to the frontier of sleep is through our singing – the lullaby. Even the most rudimentary singing voice seems to provide all that is needed, although I have personally found that this is difficult to sustain with my children once they have reached Class Two. Somehow they seem to be too self conscious and singing to sleep belongs, they feel, ‘to babies and Kindergarten children’. A quiet, appropriate bedtime story, preferably told afresh or by memory also allows the child to withdraw from the hard physical world to a day-dreaming imaginative landscape. As with singing, I have found this hard to sustain and have resorted to reading directly from the books. The choice of book is, of course, important and quite often I find myself reading so-called bedtime books which are either too old or too young for the child; sometimes it becomes apparent that the content is unsuitable, perhaps too emotional, threatening and brutal or, some-times, particularly in contemporary children’s books, rather banal and unimaginative. I am sure that this is one area where our class teachers can help with recommendations to enable the bedtime reading to be complementary to the day time teaching.
The reality in this country is that the majority of children (but not, hopefully, in Waldorf schools) will go to sleep having watched a number of television programmes -sometimes for as long as two or three hours and the arguments surrounding television watching have been well raised in Waldorf circles. At present, with my oldest child at 10 years, I personally feel no necessity to introduce a television into our house. My own questions are what mood and what picture experiences do we want our children to take with them to sleep? Can television provide something positive to effect the transition into sleep? My personal experience is that, for young children in particular, television does not enliven the active inner life of imagination and, moreover, the powerful outer sense images which characterise television can often overshadow the more subtle, delicate impressions of school lessons and the living impressions of the actual world, the world of actions. The thought of the contemporary child being lulled into sleep by a radio cassette or television is uncomfortable.
I am often surprised at the disturbance which our children can sleep through. This ability varies from child to child with conversations with visitors in the bedroom, lights switched on and off rarely causing any stirring for the child in good healthy sleep. It serves as a reminder of how completely the child has ‘left’ its body and embarked on the journey into sleep. I have often wondered to what extent the state of the bed and bedding after a night’s sleep is indicative of the quality of sleep, or kind of sleep footprint? The recovery from sleep in the child is generally easier for parents to deal with, possibly because we too, first thing in the morning are day-dreaming and not normally in the mood for over sensory stimulation. I have noticed considerable variance in my children after a night’s sleep, sometimes with that fresh, silvery, sparkle and bounce of wakefulness and at other times with a more slow, dreamy, sluggish air. Quite often the difficult, conflicting situation occurs when reconciling the slow gradual move out of day-dreaming and the need to arrive at school on time! This can be particularly galling for the young Kindergarten children.
I recently heard Waldorf education characterised as the ‘lighting of fires’ and not the ‘filling of buckets’. What a wonderful vision for this education: a fire with its unpredictability and uncertainty, its own inner life and abundant energy. Is this a glimpse of the freedom that our education seeks to give to our children? When we hear Waldorf teachers saying that education only really happens in sleep, we as parents must surely feel some sense of responsibility and play our part in this total education of our children. They need our love and care in sleeping as well as in their waking and day-dreaming lives.
David Tasker is a parent at the York Steiner School [U.K.]