Young & Restless Kids' sleeping habits make bedtime nightmarish

September 10, 1993|By Ana Veciana-Suarez | Ana Veciana-Suarez,Knight-Ridder News Service

From the time parents bring their newborn home until they send a teen-ager off into the world, bedtime tests their patience and their willpower.

For children, unlike their parents, sleep isn't a respite. It's deprivation, an interruption to all the excitement of the day. They don't want to go to bed.

Though sleep seems to be something that should come easily and naturally, most children have to be taught to sleep the way the rest of us do -- in their beds and at night.

"Ninety percent of the kids I see are normal, average kids," says Dr. Marcel Duray, director of the Sleep-Wake Disorder Center at Miami Children's Hospital. "But they have been taught to sleep in a certain way -- by rocking or with a bottle, or on the sofa, or in the parents' bed. They don't know how to fall asleep any other way or by themselves."

So from infancy on, some children have trouble dropping off. Many wake up in the middle of the night, calling for parents. Others suffer from sleep disorders -- sleepwalking, nightmares and night terrors. Though most of these problems disappear by the time children reach adolescence, sleep habits may continue to be a point of contention between teen-agers and their parents if the child either sleeps too much or too little.

All kids suffer some type of sleep disturbance at some point in their lives. But for 1 in 5, the problem is persistent, according to the Virginia-based Better Sleep Council, an educational organization funded by the bedding industry.

Children's sleep needs have not changed substantially from past generations, but the hours they and their parents keep have. The advent of electricity, television and round-the-clock lifestyles have contributed to a national sleep debt.

"What has changed is our society," says Nancy Butler, a spokeswoman for the Better Sleep Council. "Over the last century we have been steadily cutting back on our sleep time, so now we are sleeping 20 percent less than what our grandparents were. If you're a mother and a breadwinner, you're already shaving time off from your sleep. So when your kids have problems sleeping, you don't have the tolerance to deal with them."

Night wakings are the most common problem among children 3 and younger, from babies who can't find their pacifier in the crib to the toddler who is frightened of the dark. A child will wake up in the middle of the night -- as we all do -- and not be able to soothe himself back to sleep. This could happen several times a night, wreaking havoc with a parent's rest.

What's a weary parent, torn between compassion and the craving for sleep, to do? That depends, in large part, on the age of the child. The crib years

For older babies who sleep in cribs, many pediatricians recommend a method introduced by Dr. Richard Ferber, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders of Children's Hospital in Boston. After a parent checks that the child is fine -- not in pain or uncomfortable from a soiled diaper -- Dr. Ferber tells parents to let the baby cry for five minutes before returning to the room. Parents should then reassure the child they are nearby, but they should not pick him up.

If the child continues to cry, the parent can return to the room in 10 minutes and then in 15-minute intervals thereafter until the baby falls asleep. In subsequent nights, parents should increase the amount of time they wait before going to check. In theory, the baby will learn to cry less each evening and sleep through the night in a few days.

Some parents swear by this method. Kathy O'Such used it to get her oldest, Erin, now 9, to fall asleep when she was about a year old. "It took three days, so it wasn't too bad," Ms. O'Such recalls. "But I remember the cries were gut-wrenching for me. I knew they weren't cries of pain, but it was hard to take anyway."

Other mothers, however, aren't sure the Ferber method is for them. They are haunted by the age-old question: Are we spoiling children or are we simply meeting their needs? They believe that by answering a baby's cry quickly, whether during the day or in the middle of the night, she will grow up more secure and eventually wean herself from Mommy's help in a more natural way.

Elizabeth Rhodes says she followed her doctor's orders with Heather, the oldest of her three children. "I was told to let her cry it out, so my oldest was the one left to cry the longest. Now she's the one with the worst sleeping pattern. With my youngest two, I comforted them or my husband held them and rocked them, and they sleep through the night without a problem."

Dr. Ferber warns that too often his technique is recommended when it shouldn't be. The method, he says, should not be used on children younger than 4 to 6 months, nor on every child.

"The technique is not meant to be a universal cure," Dr. Ferbesays. "The first thing you have to determine is why they are not sleeping well. You should only use it with kids who have normal sleep patterns. It's not for kids who have nightmares or sleep terrors."

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