Avraham ben Yaakov
Parents' Guide to Teaching Children Healthcare

9 Sleep, rest and relaxation

"If a person sleeps in order to allow his mind to rest and to give rest to his body so that he should not become sick and unable to serve G-d because of illness, in this case his very sleep is service of G-d. This is the meaning of the precept of the sages that 'all your deeds should be for the sake of heaven'" (Rambam, Hilchos Deos 3, 3).

Good sleep is as important as good nutrition!

Almost a third of our lives are spent asleep! Sleep is vital to bodily functioning. When a person has enough healthy sleep, he is fresh, his mind functions better, his moods are better and his ability to achieve his goals, material and spiritual, is greatly enhanced. Developing healthy habits of sleep is also a part of the mitzvah of "Take care of your souls" -- ".his very sleep is service of G-d!"

In the opinion of the Rambam and the Ben Ish Chai (1835-1909), the average adult needs between six to eight hours of sleep a night. Regularly sleeping for more than eight hours a night can be no less harmful than regularly getting less than six hours sleep a night. The results of extensive research conducted recently in sleep laboratories bear out the recommendations of great Torah sages.

In the case of children, the need for sleep is greater. Children need sleep not only to rest from today and gain strength for tomorrow; sleep is vital to their proper growth and development. Most of a baby's time is spent sleeping. As the baby grows, he sleeps less. Medical experts recommend that children between the ages of 5 and 12 should have an average of 8-10 hours of sleep a night. The need for sleep continues to become less, until it balances out at 6-8 hours a night.

Children and sleep

We all know that many adults would be only too happy to have more hours of sleep, but it can be very hard to persuade children to go to sleep! Too often the children finally drop, totally exhausted, late at night -- and the resulting fatigue is felt very well the next day. The child is so tired that he falls asleep during the day, goes to bed late again that night, gets up tired the next morning. and so the vicious cycle continues. All kinds of occasions and other factors contribute to the problem: simchah celebrations, special events, the summertime clock and more.

The difference between sufficient, healthy night-time sleep and short, interrupted night-time sleep makes itself felt in the child's behavior the next day. After a good night's sleep, the child gets up in the morning rested, refreshed, full of energy, smiling, nicely-behaved, able to think and concentrate. But when a child doesn't sleep enough at night, he gets up tired and is likely to be nagging, irritable, drowsy unable to think and concentrate and badly-behaved. School studies suffer, and this is a loss that cannot easily be made up.

We all know that preparing children for bed at night is a continual battle where we have to try to persuade them not only to get into bed but also to fall asleep. The key to success is routine. Parents should do everything in their power to organize themselves in such a way that they have fixed times to feed the children their evening meal, prepare them for going to sleep and get them into bed. It helps when the parents spend a little time with the children when they are already in bed, whether to talk to them or tell them a relaxing story. This helps prepare the children mentally to go to sleep. There is plenty of scope for us to use our imagination here!

Adolescents and teenagers

The struggle to make sure our children get enough sleep takes a new form as they enter puberty and advance into their teens. Their studies take up long hours and the time remaining for other activities is limited. The result is that sleep is often pushed low down on their order of priorities. It's not so bad if they don't get enough sleep once in a while, but if it becomes a habit, the effects can be serious: tiredness, poor concentration, impaired thinking, weak memory, lack of alertness in class, poor mood and irritability as well as the negative effects on physical development.

Adolescents and teenagers are naturally more independent. Indeed, it is important to encourage them to be independent -- as long as we also teach them to act responsibly. At the same time, parents need to continue keeping watch over their children without trying to control them and without hurting their feelings. With regard to sleep, if teenagers diverge too far from healthy patterns, parents should gently help them establish a better routine.

Some ways to encourage healthy sleep

1. Have a regular bedtime routine and try to arrange your schedule so you can keep to it.

2. Simchah-celebrations, special events, an unexpected visit to the doctor and much else may come up force changes from the regular schedule, delaying bedtime. Instead of sleeping too late next morning, it causes less of a disruption to the regular routine if one gets up as near as possible to the usual time and then goes to bed earlier that evening. This applies to both adults and children.

3. During the day, it can be highly refreshing to close the eyes and take half an hour of deep bodily relaxation without going to sleep. It is best not to sleep for long during the day as this interferes with the next night's sleep, and the effects will be felt the following day.

4. After a meal it is best to wait until the food is digested before going to sleep -- when the body is busy digesting the food, the sleep is not healthy.

5. From the late afternoon onwards, it is advisable to avoid coffee, colas and other drinks that contain caffeine, which keeps most people awake.

6. Physical activity and exercise during the day are stimulating and invigorating, and also contribute to relaxed sleep at night. It is unadvisable to engage in intense physical activity immediately before going to bed.

7. Leave time to unwind before going to sleep. Keep the lights low - bright light is good in the morning, but avoid it in the evening as it signals the brain that it's time to wake up.

People sometimes find they become very drowsy at certain points during the day and it becomes an effort to keep their eyes open even when they have had enough sleep. This can often be a problem with young students. In some cases such problems may be related to what they are eating, when and how. For example, a rich evening meal before going to sleep followed by a large breakfast in the morning can give rise to feelings of heaviness and drowsiness. There are some foods that make certain people sleepy. This is an individual matter. Simple changes in eating habits may help correct the problem.

The day and night are twenty-four hours. It is sufficient for a person to sleep one third of that time, namely eight hours. This should be in the latter part of the night so that from the time one goes to sleep until the sun comes up is eight hours. This way one rises from one's bed before the sun comes up. One should not sleep flat on one's face nor flat on one's back but rather on one's side, at the beginning of the night on the left side and at the end of the night on the right side. One should not go to sleep directly after eating but wait from three to four hours, and one should not sleep by day. (Rambam, Hilchos Deos 4, 4-5).


How much sleep?

One should not think that the more a person sleeps, the better it is for the body. All leading doctors agree that a person should sleep at night no less than six hours and no more than eight, because too much sleep is harmful. All the doctors agree that sleeping for more than eight hours is harmful to the body, whereas a person who sleeps for six hours completely fulfills the duty he has to take proper care of the health of his body. For this reason a Jew -- who is also obliged to take proper care of the health of his holy soul -- should sleep no more than six hours. This way, he fulfills his obligation to protect the health of his body, and he should spend the remaining hours of the night engaged in Torah in order to promote the health of his soul. And if, on occasion, he sleeps less than the six hours that are for the health of his body, adding to the hours he spends cultivating the health of his soul, he can be sure that his physical health will not suffer in any way. For this reason, on Thursday nights, the night before the New Moon, during the month of Elul, the Ten Days of Penitence and so on, if a person sleeps for less than six hours, he can be sure that his bodily health will not suffer any way.

When is the best time to sleep?

Although the whole night is a time for sleep, nevertheless, it is better to sleep during the first half of the night and not during the second. This has benefits on both the physical plane -- it is healthier for the body -- and also on the spiritual plane -- it helps in the rectification of the soul and all the worlds. A leading doctor has written: "From midnight to midday is like a person's age of ascent; from midday until the evening is like his time of stability, while the time from the evening until midnight may be compared to his days of decline. Therefore a person who stays awake during the first half of the night and sleeps during the second half of the night is like someone who is active during the days of decline while resting during the age of ascent. In the holy work, Ru'ach Chaim "Spirit of Life" (p. 90), a famous sage is quoted as having said: "Going to bed in the early evening and rising in the early morning make a person healthy, wise and strong." It is also good for women who always have several hours of work to do at night to get into the habit of sleeping in the first part of the night and rising very early to do their work: "And she rises while it is yet night and gives prey to her house" (Proverbs 31:15).

Ben Ish Chai I, Vayishlah 1

Resting the eyes

Sometimes, we feel tired not so much because our bodies are tired as because our eyes are tired. The eyes are the most delicate, active parts of our bodies. We use them all day and a good part of the night in natural and artificial light. Students, those who work in front of computer screens and many others, often need to use their eyes intensively for many hours. If we strain our eyes for prolonged periods without resting them, it is hardly surprising if the strain and tiredness makes our vision blurred. People often think this must be because of bad eyesight, and run to test their vision.

In many cases of poor vision there is little choice but to use suitable glasses. It is important to have not only a vision test but also a thorough eye examination by a specialist. However, many people experience difficulties in seeing not so much because of any fault in the physical structure of their eyes but because of the way they use their eyes. If we consider how the eye works, we will see that some visual problems can be avoided easily with simple techniques.

The eye is a receiver of light. For that reason, the best way to see is when the light is good -- it is particularly important to read in good light, not in semi-darkness or when the page is in shadow. When it comes to resting and relaxing the eyes, we do it by shutting out the light. The main way we rest our eyes is when we close them to sleep at night in the dark. Yet even with a proper quota of sleep, our eyes need periods of rest from use throughout the day. Today the need for this is greater than ever before: artificial lighting has increased our eyes' "working hours", while the "workload" is greater because of the flood of reading material.

Our eyelids were created to protect our eyes and also to give them rest, even momentarily, every time we blink. Often when concentrating intently on reading, there is a tendency to stare at the words and blink less. This deprives the eyes of their natural rest. It's good to blink!

When reading for lengthy periods it is advisable to lift the eyes from the page from time to time and look at a far-off object. This gives the eye relief from the tension caused by prolonged focussing on the text. From time to time it is good to practice switching focus from near objects to far and from far to near -- this helps maintain the eyes' focussing ability.


One of the simplest and most effective ways of relaxing the eyes is by covering them for a short time with the palms of the hands. This can be especially helpful at points in the day when our eyes feel tired and strained -- it can help us prepare to get back to work again refreshed, with clearer vision and renewed powers of concentration.

Rest your elbows on a desk or table, close your eyes and cover them with your hands so that your palms are covering your eyes while your fingers are extended over your forehead up to the scalp. While leaning gently on your arms, rest your eyes lightly against your palms, cupping them a little to avoid pressing on the eyes. The idea is to shut out as much light as possible to rest the eyes. The warmth of the palms of the hands relaxes the eyes and surrounding muscles. [ILLUSTRATION]

Palming may be practiced as needed for periods of anywhere from 1-2 minutes to 10-15 minutes or even longer if your eyes are particularly strained. It can be done anywhere and at any time. Particularly when you have a lot of work to do but feel eye-strain and fatigue, covering your eyes for a few minutes can be very refreshing. Practiced at the end of the day before going to bed it can make your sleep more restful and refreshing.

This simple exercise is so beneficial that it is well worth teaching it to children at a young age. It can help them relax their eyes and may assist in avoiding short- and long-term vision problems. Palming is particularly helpful at the age when children spend more of their time reading and writing, which is when children often complain of having difficulty seeing.

The exercise can be practiced in the classroom and at home, singly and in a group. In addition to its beneficial effects on vision, sitting quietly for a while helps children relax. When practiced in a group, it can be a time for being "together", telling a story, talking about something interesting or playing question and answer games. Older students can put the time spent resting their eyes to good use to mentally review their studies, examine and work on themselves, offer some personal prayers, listen to a tape or just relax.

Care of the ears

Sh'ma Yisrael! Hear, Israel! We depend on our ears when saying and listening to our words of prayer, studying the Torah, hearing what's going on around us and communicating with one another to transmit and receive information, thoughts and feelings. Our ears are also extremely delicate. For all these reasons, it is important to take proper care of our ears, and as parents, we must communicate this to our children.

Never insert anything (finger, pen or even cotton swabs) in the ears, for this can easily hurt the ear, make it bleed or even cause an ear infection. When washing children's heads, try to avoid getting water in their ears, and if water does get in, dry them carefully with a towel.

Protect the ears from excessive noise, including very loud music from speakers or headphones. Exposure to noise can harm our hearing. When we know we are likely to be exposed to loud noise, it is a good idea to use protective earplugs.

In cases of persistent ear pain or any other ear problem, even the slightest, consult a doctor.

May we guard our ears, physically and spiritually, and merit fulfillment of the promise in the Torah:

"If you will surely hear the voice of HaShem your God. and listen to His commandments. all the diseases that I have put upon the Egyptians, I will not put upon you, for I HaShem am your Healer" (Exodus 15:26).

Chapter 10: The Joy of Living




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