Finding Sleep Solutions
Dr. Mindell says that even when parents are aware of a child's sleep deficit, they don't always seek out help. I, for one, did not go to my pediatrician to discuss my son's bad bedtime behavior -- and that 3:45 A.M. wake-up call was certainly not the first time we'd had sleep issues in our house. As a working mom, I've often felt guilty when I don't see my children during the day, so I lie in bed with them for at least an hour every night, rubbing their backs until they fall asleep. I knew my children's sleep snafus were a monster of my own making and I saw no need to tattle on myself to their doctor.
As it turns out, the pediatrician is the first person any parent should turn to when sleep problems arise. Insomnia is a symptom that may signal the possibility of another problem, say Drs. Mindell and Owens, who together wrote the book Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep. This could be a mental-health issue, such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, or autism, or a medical condition like reflux, restless legs syndrome, or sleep apnea. After your doctor has ruled out other causes, your child may need a consultation with a sleep expert and possibly even an overnight sleep study.
Most of the time, though, the cause is what sleep specialists call "behavioral" and what my guilty conscience calls "my fault." Fortunately, experts are more than willing to cut parents some slack: Some children have a predisposition to have sleep problems or a tendency to worry. Although parents can contribute to the problem, they can also be a part of the solution. On the next pages are the most common reasons why kids don't go to sleep and strategies you can try tonight.
Fears of the dark or monsters
Play games during the daytime that will make your child more comfortable when the lights are out, suggests Dr. Honaker. For example, give her a flashlight and let her hunt for a few stuffed animals in her room. You can go with her the first couple of times, but then coax her to go it alone as she becomes more comfortable. If she asks to sleep with the light on, try to resist. It's okay to use a night-light, but bright lights can interfere with the release of the sleep-regulating natural hormone melatonin.
Put a stop to repeat runs to the bathroom and requests for water by creating bedtime passes, explains Dr. Owens. Studies conducted on 3- to 10-year-olds prove that this technique delivers. Give your child two passes: one for a hug and another for a bathroom break or a drink. Tell him he can use the passes after lights-out, but after that, he can't get out of his bed. Praise him for using the passes, but put him back to bed with little emotion if he gets out of bed sans pass. When he doesn't use both of his passes, he can trade them in for a reward the next day.