How to get the kids in bed and asleep

June 24, 1992|By Ellen Creager | Ellen Creager,Knight-Ridder News Service

Mirianna Milo can single-handedly put 40 children down for a nap at the Childtime Daycare Center in Detroit.

But Mrs. Milo simply cannot get her own 18-month-old daughter to bed at night.

"She's an insomniac. She's wide awake at 3 o'clock in the morning, singing songs," says her mother, sounding exasperated. "At home we stay up late and chase her around with a plate of food, trying to get her to sleep. In three days she slept a total of six hours. I have no trouble putting children to sleep at work. Why doesn't it work at my house?"

Mrs. Milo was told about a new book, "Winning Bedtime Battles -- How to Help Your Child Develop Good Sleep Habits" by Dr. Charles Schaefer and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo (Citadel Press, $9.95), and her voice took on a note of hope.

"I'd sure like to borrow that book," she says.

So would a lot of other parents whose evenings are filled not with happy, calm bedtimes but with children's fears, wild antics, tantrums and bargaining.

"Part of it is, you're more objective with other people's kids than you are with your own," says Dr. Schaefer, director of the Better Sleep Center at Farleigh Dickinson University in Hackensack, N.J., explaining why it's easier for Mrs. Milo to put a stranger's child to bed than her own.

The bad news is, two-thirds of children will have some kind of sleep problem at one time or another. The good news is, most of these difficulties can be quickly solved by parents changing their methods.

If Dr. Schaefer could have a heart-to-heart talk with parents, here's what he'd say about common childhood battles. Parents just need confidence and a battle plan. His book gives tips on helping with childhood fears, insomnia and more serious sleep disruptions. If sleep problems have been going on for a while, consult a doctor. But, for the benefit of most parents out there, here's what he says about two common bedtime problems:

* Bedtime resistance: Bedtime? What bedtime? Seventy percent of 2-year-olds and 50 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds resist when told it's time for bed. Bedtime should be an enjoyable ritual, but non-negotiable.

Why? "We have a generation of sleepy kids," says Dr. Schaefer. Children today are not getting enough sleep. Older children who doze or mope during the day are not sleeping enough at night. Many children who seem wide awake at 10 or 11 p.m. actually are just wound up. Even the 10 percent of children who don't seem to need much sleep should have a set bedtime, go to their rooms, say good night and read or play quietly until they're ready to sleep.

"Some parents have trouble setting limits on their own kids. They don't want the kids to say, 'You're mean,'" says Dr. Schaefer. But this fear, he adds, must be outweighed by the conviction that "an appropriate bedtime is necessary to your child's health and well-being."

Your battle plan: Create bedtime rituals. Set a bedtime hour. Be consistent. Enforce quiet time, give advance notice, escort your child to bed, then leave the room. "Any hesitation on your part will be picked up by your children as a possible indication that maybe you really aren't serious about this bedtime business," Dr. Schaefer says. After several nights of protest, your child should begin to conform. The book contains other plans for children who throw tantrums at bedtime and for those who delay sleep for other reasons.

* "Putting" your child to sleep: A bad idea -- unless you want the job for years.

"As soon as you get the baby home from the hospital, you should let them fall asleep on their own," Dr. Schaefer says. "In our culture, we think it's our job to put them to sleep and we can't stand to hear a child cry. In reality, a child is capable of falling asleep and then going back to sleep on his own."

It is a parent's responsibility to set a fair bedtime, enforce it, and provide a quiet place to sleep. But it is the child's responsibility to fall asleep. Putting children to sleep, whether by lying down with them, patting their backs until they drift off, running to them in the night, or letting them sleep with you, "is a really bad sleep habit" says Dr. Schaefer. These habits do not allow the child to develop the confidence to put himself or herself to sleep, and can harm a marriage by robbing parents of evening time alone. Frequent night wakings, as any parent of a baby can attest, wreak havoc on one's emotions.

"Untold numbers of children over 1 year of age regularly wake during the night and either call out for their parents to come into their room and help them go back to sleep, or leave their own beds and sleep with their parents."

What to do? First, set a new bedtime routine that starts at least a half hour before you turn off the lights. Then, talk about the plan ahead of time with your child. Give incentives. Give them opportunities to succeed. Kiss them, hug them, then leave the room before the child goes to sleep, and let the chips fall where they may. In the book, one woman told of the horrible scene she suffered after following that advice -- but her story ended happily when her daughter discovered she could sleep without her mother there.

"Cynthia's concern about feeling 'cruel' is a common reaction to letting children cry; you may even worry that sleep training may cause your children psychological harm, but there is absolutely no evidence to support that idea," writes Dr. Schaefer.

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