Expert Advice on Sleep Routines

The Escape Artists

Laura, Austin, Willa, 6, and Devin, 4

The Scene: A typical night at our house in Marin County, CA, includes a regular bedtime routine, followed by a set bedtime of 8 p.m., from which we never vary. But after that, the party begins. Devin calls Daddy into his room to talk about "articulated dump trucks." Willa comes out to announce that she cannot sleep "with a nail clipper in my room." By 10:15 p.m., at which time our entire clan collapses in exhaustion, Willa and Devin have usually come out of their bedrooms 15 to 20 times.

The Expert: James Windell, a child psychologist based in Bloomfield Hills, MI, and author of 8 Weeks to a Well-Behaved Child.

The Game Plan: Because we had the bedtime routine down, Windell focused on how we communicate with our little Houdinis. In our case, that meant telling Willa and Devin, "We expect you to stay in your rooms after bedtime." You should have this discussion a couple of times throughout the day, says Windell, especially right before it's time to go to bed.

"Have the children state your expectation back to you," says Windell, to make sure they understand it. "Then state the consequence for compliance or noncompliance," he says, "and make sure it's one that can be carried out in the next 24 hours." He suggested that we draw up a chart and let Willa and Devin place star stickers on it if they stayed in their rooms the night before. When the children collect enough star stickers, we could reward them with a special treat, like a game of Go Fish with Mommy or Daddy.

Following through on these steps, Windell warned us, might be the toughest part: "If the children come out of their rooms, march them back in, say good night, and leave. If they need to talk about something, say, 'We'll talk about it in the morning.'" We might not see a lot of progress during the first few weeks, he warned us: "But you have to try to remain calm and consistent."

The Outcome: Who knew that kids would be so unbelievably good for one little star? Willa and Devin stayed in their rooms all night the first night, and the next night, and the next. I realized then that what I had always been told but never believed really was true. Children do want discipline, and what's more, they respond well to clear boundaries. If we had one problem, it was Austin, my husband, who travels constantly for his job and viewed bedtime as an opportunity to get reacquainted with the kids. I had to pull him out of their rooms so often that I nearly had to state my expectations to him. But after a few nights of getting to watch an entire football game, even he came around.

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