Kids and Sleep

April 2, 2010 8:44:23 AM PDT
I'm a big believer in sleep. Not just because I worked on Action News mornings for so many years and had to get up 2:00 a.m., but because I really think people who are well-rested are more pleasant and function better on all sorts of levels. I know it's true for me. I think it's true for most adults. And I REALLY think it's true for children.

I didn't really think about sleep a lot until I had my children. As all new parents -- especially nursing mothers -- know, it's just about impossible to get enough sleep when you bring a newborn into your home. Luckily, all three of my boys were sleeping through the night before my maternity leaves ended. I truly don't know how moms whose children don't sleep through the night function. I read a lot about getting babies to sleep and used tips like keeping the room dark and quiet and not turning nighttime feedings into playtime. But I think the biggest help was establishing a definite nighttime routine. In our house, that meant bath, story, bottle and bed. Then it was lights out. And I got a great tip from our pediatrician. She said always give a baby 10 minutes of crying time at night before you go in to check on them. Some nights, those ten minutes felt like ten hours. Sometimes, the crying would last nine minutes and 59 seconds. But it worked. Usually, the boys fell asleep. And if they didn't, then we'd go in and check on them. A quick pat on the back, and diaper check, and then it was right back out of the room. Eventually, the crying went down to five minutes, then one. Then it disappeared and the boys would fall right to sleep on their own.

One other thing. We never let the boys sleep in our bed. I know some people believe in family beds. But, I've also heard so many parents who started to allow their children to sleep in their beds who regret it, because as the children get older, they don't learn to fall asleep on their own. I think of it sort of like smoking. It's a lot easier to never start than it is to quit.

My boys were also good nappers. They continued napping to age three-and-a-half or so. Some people think allowing toddlers and pre-schoolers to nap makes it tougher for them to fall asleep at night. Surprisingly, I found the opposite. When my sons got their naps, they slept well at night and had no problems going to bed. It was days when they missed their naps, because we were out or their routines were somehow disrupted, that they became more and more agitated throughout the evenings and bedtime became difficult. I also noticed that would have more "bad dreams" on nights when they hadn't napped during the day. And when they didn't get enough sleep, they would find even the littlest mishaps upsetting. Gradually, their naps got shorter and they gave them up. But, I really let their body clocks determine when that time came, as opposed to deciding this should happen at a certain age. And when they first stopped napping, I made their bedtimes earlier.

Then there's the opposite problem of getting the kids to sleep. At some point during their pre-school years, each of my boys went through what I call their "Rooster" phase. As soon as the sun came up, they would wake up, even if the sunrise was at five or six in the morning. My sister-in-law had a great strategy for changing this behavior. I put a digital clock next to the bed and covered up the minutes display with a piece of paper. On that paper, I drew a "7." The rule was they couldn't get out of bed until the number that showed on the clock matched the number on the paper. They could play quietly with their stuffed animals, but they had to stay in bed. Each morning they did stay in bed until 7, they got a sticker, which we put on a chart. After seven days in a row with stickers, they got to pick out a toy at the dollar store. Believe me, a week of us parents getting enough sleep in the mornings was well worth the buck. Within a month of implementing this little program, each of them learned to stay in bed 'til seven.

Of course, now that the two older boys are teenagers, I might need to do new sticker charts to get them OUT of bed before noon (just kidding!)