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Expert Advice on Sleep Routines

A Good Night's Rest

If sleep experts agree on one point, it's this: Kids need a consistent bedtime. However, not all families face the same problem -- and each situation may require a slightly different approach. Child took three families facing three distinct issues, and had them seek the advice of a top expert. Here's what happened when they followed the experts' advice. Perhaps you'll recognize yourself in one of these stories and gain a better night's sleep for your family.

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.

Amy, Tom, Amelia, 7, and Jake, 3

The Scene: At 8:15 p.m., Amy Knapp and her husband, Tom, of San Anselmo, CA, would start putting their kids to bed. Amelia would fall asleep immediately. Jake, on the other hand, would begin every sort of trick to get his parents' attention, from coming out of his room repeatedly to yelling, "Did you feed the fish?"

After Amy and Tom finally got Jake to sleep, though, the real fun began. Two or three times a week, in the middle of the night, Amelia would crawl into her parents' bed and have a meltdown if they tried to put her back. Then Tom, a light sleeper, would slip into Amelia's bed, and Jake, who hated to be left out of anything, would crawl in with Amy and Amelia -- forcing Amy to sneak into Jake's bed, only to be followed by Jake.

The Expert: Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at The Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO, and author of Beyond Discipline.

The Game Plan: Jake was the easier of the two children. Dr. Christophersen recommended marching him back to his bedroom in a no-nonsense way. But Dr. Christophersen was more concerned about the meltdowns that Amelia had when she didn't get her own way. His prescription? Don't give in when Amelia has a tantrum, ignore her when she exhibits bad behavior (giving her a chance to calm herself), and praise her when she's good. Most important, he said, Amelia needed to practice her self-calming skills during the day so that she could carry them through at night.

The Outcome: For the first few weeks, Amy and Tom took Jake back to bed every time he got up, and they gave Amelia room to practice self-quieting skills. When Amelia refused to do her homework, Amy calmly told her, "That's fine -- then you can get a zero." Amelia had a fit, stomped outside, and sat on the back deck until she felt better. Then she came back inside and did her homework.

Gradually, something amazing happened: Over a six-week period, Amelia crawled into her parents' bed only twice and Jake started to stay put. It turned out that the big-picture approach of looking at daytime behavior in connection with nighttime behavior made a lot of sense. Says Amy: "Praising the positive and ignoring the negative really does work."

Sabrina, Mark, Jack, 3, and Grace, 1

The Scene: "Jack is a delayer of bedtime," says Mark Murphy of Scarborough, ME. Ever since Jack's baby sister was born, Mark has been handling his son's bedtime while his wife, Sabrina, oversees Grace's. The baby sleeps fine through the night, but with Jack, it's a different story.

Mark arrives home at 6:30 p.m. and aims to get Jack into bed between 8:30 and 9:15. Alas, Jack will do anything to avoid bedtime. "One night, I turned around to get a towel, and Jack leapt out of the tub and ran through the house," says Mark. "When I finally caught him, he said, 'I'm not going through this every night!," which is exactly what we say to him every night."

Once father and son reach the bedroom at last, the real stalling starts. First, Jack asks Mark to say his prayers with him. Next, he asks for a story, then his G.I. Joe "guys." When Mark finally leaves, Jack lures him back by saying, "There's something wrong."

The Expert: Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The Game Plan: The first thing that concerned Dr. Mindell was Jack's bedtime. She advised moving it a half hour earlier. Then she suggested making a pictorial chart with each element of the routine -- bath, pajamas, prayers, stories, "guys," bed -- displayed in the order that they'll be done. When it's bedtime, she explained, you can look at the chart and ask your child, "What do we do next?" Children like routines in which things happen right in a row, she says.

She also proposed allowing Jack to make one extra request each night but said that afterward, Mark simply needs to stay neutral and strong, either ignoring his son or saying "It's bedtime" when he comes out of his room.

The Outcome: "Once I got the poster up, Jack respected it," says Mark. "The whole routine now takes about 15 minutes after the bath, and if I miss anything, he calls me on it."

Mark admits that the hardest part, at first, was forcing himself to go through the bedtime routine -- a task that Jack found much easier than his dad. At the end of a long day, the last thing Mark wanted to do was initiate the nightly ritual. But he learned to discipline himself until it became a habit for him too.

In the end, Mark found that the chart worked so well that he didn't always heed Dr. Mindell's other advice. "We try for an earlier bedtime, but we don't always make it," he says. "And I usually don't need to allow Jack another request. Once he sees the picture of the bed, he knows it's time to go to sleep."

Laura Hilgers lives with her husband and two children in Marin County, CA.

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Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the October 2001 issue of Child magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.