GO TO SLEEP! Getting Past The Bedtime Blues

Many parents of young children name sleep deprivation as their number one complaint. Even when children get out of the infancy stage, they often adopt poor sleeping habits that can continue into the early elementary school years. The sleep deprivation that adults experience is even worse for children because lack of sleep can negatively affect learning, concentration, the ability to engage in positive relationships and other vital goals of childhood.

So how much sleep does your child need? According to Richard Ferber, M.D., nationally acclaimed sleep specialist, the average one-year-old needs almost 14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. Two-year-olds need 13 hours, 3-year-olds need 12, 4 year olds require 11 and a half hours, 5 year olds 11 hours. After five, the need for sleep slowly diminishes in approximately quarter-hour segments until 18 years, when the need for sleep is approximately 8 1/4 hours per night.

Many parents who have been battling their own exhaustion and discouragement in having failed to get their child to sleep sooner or longer will justify giving up in this area by saying that their child "just doesn't need as much sleep as other children." While it's true that everyone has slightly different sleep needs, if your child's sleeping habits differ by more than an hour from Ferber's general guidelines, I would recommend that you rethink some of the things which can affect children's sleep and make adjustments in an effort to encourage better sleeping behavior in your child.

Children's sleep can be affected by a number of different things. Listed below are the most common mistakes that parents make which can affect the ease with which a child goes to sleep and the amount of time he stays asleep:

* Hidden caffeine or sugar prior to bedtime. While people seem to be affected differently by additives such as caffeine or sugar, when a child has trouble falling asleep or wakes during the night, these are the first two things to look for and eliminate. Sodas, chocolate, some cereals, and yogurt are just a few examples of where caffeine or sugar may be hiding. Read labels carefully and eliminate these possible culprits of poor sleep.

* Overstimulation. Many parents, in an effort to "wear out" their child, will engage their child in very active play prior to bedtime. Unfortunately this usually has the opposite effect, overstimulating the child and making it more difficult for her to wind down. The general rule of thumb is to go from the most active, external activities to the least active, internal activities. Thus, active outdoor play should transition to less active indoor play, to quiet indoor play, to inactive reading or storytelling in the child's bedroom.

* Television or Video within two hours of bedtime. Visual media is another common culprit in sleep deprived children. While many parents will put their children in front of a television or video because it "calms them down" before bed, this medium is actually a visual and auditory stimulant. Thus, while it is physically passive, and children may actually fall asleep in front of the TV, the visual and auditory images continue to be processed by the brain, often causing middle of the night waking.

* Changing the conditions under which your child falls asleep. Many children will beg to have the light on, door open or music on in order to help them fall asleep. In and of themselves, these are not usually issues with regard to a child falling or staying asleep. However, when parents change these conditions after the child has already fallen asleep (turning off the light or music or shutting the door) it can cause middle of the night waking. Children, like all of us, wake periodically during the night - to get into a more comfortable position, because they heard a noise, or for other reasons. Most of the time, they (like we) can put themselves back to sleep with little trouble. However, if they awaken to find that one of the conditions under which they fell asleep has changed, they will often try to reinstitute that condition, calling out for mom or dad, or simply crying without knowing the reason why. The rule of thumb here is that whatever conditions your child falls asleep under are the conditions that should be maintained throughout the night.

* Lying down with your child until he falls asleep. Parents who lie down with their child so that he will fall asleep usually experience one of several complications:

* The child falls asleep quickly, but after the parent leaves, awakens during the night wanting the parent to come back and sleep with him.

* The child takes longer and longer to fall asleep, finding ways to stay awake so he can maintain contact with mom or dad.

* The child falls asleep, but lightly, so that when mom or dad tries to leave the room he wakes up and insists that mom or dad lie back down.

As you can see, this particular habit is so problematic that it's better to eliminate it all together and allow your child to fall asleep on his own. Often, simply changing this one thing will totally eradicate whatever sleep problems had been occurring.

* No routine. Finally, many parents fail to recognize the importance of routine for children of all ages. A bedtime routine helps the child transition from an active waking state to a passive sleeping state. Effective nighttime routines include eliminating the mistakes listed above, and engaging the child in 5 or 6 steps that range from most active (bath, brushing teeth, putting on PJ's etc.) to least active (books, singing, cuddling.) Keeping these steps in the same order night after night gives the child a sense of security and helps her know what to expect, putting her mind at ease and allowing her to fall and stay asleep peacefully.

When parents follow the simple guidelines above, sleep deprivation is usually eliminated - for children and parents alike!