Like most parents of small children, I was having major problems at bedtime. Things had gone from bad to worse: each night, my four-year-old refused to go to bed, and once she got there, was repeatedly getting up. The whole process could last as long as two hours, leaving us both frustrated and exhausted.
I tried everything: reading longer bedtime stories in an attempt to calm her down; a frog that played classical music. I tried extra trips to the park, trying to tire her out even more in the hope that she would collapse into bed at night. Nothing seemed to work. Until last Christmas, when I slipped a CD of guided meditations into her stocking, along with a bit of wishful thinking.
The CD promised to "help kids sleep more soundly and feel more confident and secure in their home and school life". I was dubious that a mere CD could help, but was willing to try anything. What does meditation consist of for a small child? The CD consisted of pairs of tracks: the first was a short relaxation, where listeners are told to tighten muscles in different parts of their body and then let go, followed by guided imagery where Elise could imagine herself swimming in the sea with dolphins, or living in her own fairy castle.
At first, I tried playing the CD during the day, but she was too busy playing to take notice of it. So I made it part of the bedtime routine: after the stories I would turn the light off, put the CD on, and leave the room. Elise seemed to enjoy it – when she got up the next morning, she announced she had been making new friends with the mermaids in the night. And five months later, our evenings are much calmer.
It started with the disappearance of the bedtime wrangling, but there have been other benefits, too. Elise is less frustrated with things when they don't go her way or when she gets something wrong, which before would have been a source of tension and much shouting and screaming on her part. She will sit for noticeably longer drawing or doing jigsaws, where before she would have got annoyed and given up. I have even taken the CD on holiday and she has settled down to sleep in a strange bed without any problem.
Knowing that the fidget-capacity of small children is high, I was pleased to discover that for very young children meditation proper does not necessarily mean sitting still with their eyes closed, as an adult would. If using a mantra, as in Transcendental Meditation (TM), they can say their 'word of wisdom' with their eyes open, even as they walk to school or play with Lego.
At five years of age they 'do their word' for five minutes twice a day and thereafter add one minute for each year of their age. "The difference is in the childrens' intellectual grasp of the whole concept, and the simplicity with which it is taught. The nature of the meditation is the same – the mind wants to be still, it just needs the right conditions " says Colin Beckley of the Meditation Trust.
Being a small child these days is a pretty stressful business. According to Dr Alison Murfett, a chartered psychologist at the Maple Psychology clinic in London, childhood stress is often related to family life such as sibling rivalry, arguments at home or a disorganised environment, loss or bereavement, or school life (bullying, friendships and performance issues – children as young as six are taking SATs). Is meditation the answer?
Much of the scientific research on meditation has been on TM (which uses repetition of a special word or mantra), and the actress Goldie Hawn even wants to introduce TM into British schools.
Derek Cassells, headteacher at the Maharishi School in Lancashire (the only school in the UK to teach "consciousness-based education") says the children there are happier, have more self-confidence, have better relationships with their peers and their teachers, and are more alert. In schools where meditation is on the curriculum, it is claimed there are no problems like bullying or drugs.
Research found that after one year of practising TM, children showed significant improvements in maths and reading. A study from the University of Michigan found that in year-six students, regular meditation had a significant positive effect on self-esteem and emotional competence. Beckley says meditation can help young children to experience life on a "quieter screen". "These days, there is so much sensory stimulation, we need a silent foundation, otherwise our house will topple down. Over-stimulation leads to the body storing stress, and being in a state of constant mild anxiety and restlessness. A quieter backdrop to our experience leads to increased learning." Never mind the lost art of conversation, Beckley argues that "families have lost the ability to be quiet with each other".
At the Maharishi School, Cassells teaches the principles of the "science of creative intelligence" alongside the practical aspects of meditation. These principles, "such as 'the nature of life is to grow' and 'order is present everywhere', allow children to see beneath the surface of life, so that they apply the principles outside them and within their own lives". Other schools are taking up the idea of introducing meditation to children.
So as Elise drops off listening to her guided visualisations, I enjoy the silence and remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him to sleep."
Simple steps to calmer children
Make sure that you and your children enjoy some quiet time together each day, away from the noise and distraction of TV, computers, games consoles and mobile phones.
Limit the amount of time your children spend watching television (and Colin Beckley of the Meditation Trust would argue that those under the age of three should not watch any at all).
Watch the breath: lie down and put a small teddy on the child's tummy so that they can be aware of the movement of the abdomen as they breathe in and out.
Sign up, along with your child, for meditation classes given by a trained instructor.
Try foot massage: according to the Ayurveda system of traditional Indian medicine, massaging the feet of babies and small children can relax them, help them to become more aware of their bodies, and promote bonding.