Coax Any Cranky Kid to Sleep

A mix of massage and lullabies can help ease children into slumber.

January 17, 2012

Any tired parent who has ever tried to get a wound-up 2-year-old to sleep knows that bedtime can be the most frustrating time of the day. "There's no on-off switch," explains Sybil Hart, Ph.D., professor and child-development researcher at Texas Tech University. Since research has already found that massage can ease anxiety and pain, and speed healing in children, it seems like a logical way to help them settle down for bed. But the million-dollar question is, "How do you sit a rambunctious 2-year-old down for a massage in the first place?"

Hart thinks she has the answer. In her new book, Lullaby Massage Rhyme & Touch Massage for Infants and Children (Hale Publishing, L.P., 2009), she provides a sequence of 12 massage techniques set to poetic, fun lullabies intended to relax young children and get them ready for some shut-eye. She particularly focuses on the order of the moves: You start while facing the child, reciting a fun poem, and giving a foot massage. "From there, you can move on to hands, shoulders, and tummy and back massages, which requires the most trust and least amount of resistance from the child," Hart says. She adds that children can wear all of their usual bedtime clothes for a lullaby-and-massage session.


Here are some basics that can help you help your child go to sleep peacefully:

• Start at 6 months. Hart doesn't recommend her Lullaby Massage technique for babies younger than 6 months old, but notes that around 6 to 9 months is a great time to begin. "If you're breastfeeding and weaning, some women are terrified, wondering how they'll put their baby to sleep," explains Hart. "It's great to have this in place before you wean, or as you wean, so you can make a transition." But, Hart adds, it's never too late too start.

• Learn the right touch. Figuring out how to massage your child can be intimidating, but Hart says learning how is worth it—for the child and for you. "Children are the people on earth who need massages most, and they often get them the least," says Hart.

Start with light pressure, but if it's too light the child will become ticklish. "Use enough pressure so you can actually feel it, and they can feel it, as well," explains Hart. Practice massage on yourself on a calf, so you get a sense of what feels good, and then watch your child's body language when you massage him or her to see what works. Unlike many baby-massage books that offer an entire chapter on different leg massages, Hart's book keeps it simple. "Generally speaking, with child massage the stroke itself is simple," she says. Just use slow, open-handed strokes while massaging toward the heart. For example, for a leg massage, you would start at the ankle and move very slowly toward the knee.

Read on to learn how to make a soothing lullaby.

• Set the tone. "Kids love poetry, lullabies, enjoying your voice, your touch, and the meaning of language," explains Hart. Even if a child is too young to understand the meanings of all your words, they still enjoy the sound of your voice, Hart assures. In her book, movements mimic things like painting or answering the phone, while the lyrics act as instructions for parents and keep children engaged long enough to receive the massage. For example, this stanza from a tune called "Five Little Tubes of Toothpaste" would be recited or sung during a hand massage, suggesting the motions that the parent makes as he or she massages each finger:

Five little tubes of toothpaste
Squeeze bottom to top
Then screw on the cap
Don't waste a drop.

If want to make up your own lullaby to couple with massage, Hart stresses that the goal is the encouragement of sleep. "I'd say that cadence is particularly important in the verses that come later, toward the end of the sequence. A downward-lilting tone, slow, together with somewhat repetitive verbal content, is best." For example, you might close with:

It’s the end of the day, the end of the day,
Close your eyes and float away.

• Practice regularly. "Routine is a wonderful thing," says Hart, who suggests parents start by doing the lullaby-massage combo once a day at bedtime. Hart says you don't have to do the entire 15-minute sequence each night, but you can perform only your child's favorites if you're short on time.

On the other hand, children living with autism or behavioral problems could benefit from several massage sessions a day; other children who don't like physical contact could benefit from hand massages while waiting in the high chair for their next meal.

Have you read Hart's book? If so, she would love to hear your feedback. You can contact her on Facebook.