Hush Little Baby

It wasn’t the greatest vacation for our kids.  We were at an all-inclusive resort, and put our pre-school kids in the tots’ activity program.  To sell it to them, we called it “Special School,” as in “Yay, you get to go to Special School!”  But after a few days of missing us, they began to tear up in the morning. “We don’t want to go to special school!” they’d wail.  Compounding that misery, our 2 year-old son stopped sleeping through the night, waking to cry at 3 am.

It was a bad time for the tough-love approach to get him back to sleep.  Known as “cry it out,” the strategy is to let your child cry in the middle of the night, after one or two trials of comforting them, so they learn to fall back asleep themselves.  Usually the kid cries the first night for about 45 minutes before falling asleep. The next night, 20 minutes, the next 5 minutes.  By the fourth or fifth night, they’re sleeping all night again.  Unfortunately for this vacation, he couldn’t forget us, being able to see us from his portable crib.  And with the thin walls of the hotel, he kept other guests up as well.

There’s a tension as you raise children, between meeting their desires, versus meeting yours and your other kids’ needs.  For example, they want cookies and candy, you want them to have good teeth and ache-free tummies. This applies to toddlers who in the middle of the night, or at bedtime, decide they’re lonely and want to sleep with you.  You need your sleep, they want comfort.

There’s two schools of thought on this issue.  One is the “family bed,” where children don’t sleep in a separate bed: everyone piles into one big bed.  This is okay if your child doesn’t toss, turn, and kick to keep you awake, or if you can afford a big enough bed to keep away.  If you don’t mind the lack of privacy or sleep interruptions, then no problem.  If, however, you want your kids to sleep in their own bed, in their own room, then you will eventually resort to some form of “cry it out.”

The ”cry it out” strategy for children waking in the middle of the night seems harsh to some.  My mom, one of the most loving people I’ve known, said “two closed doors between you and baby is about right.”  And crying-it-out works for toddlers who will stay in their beds.  However, my oldest would come out of her room and stare at us if we left her in her bed.  Thus, I installed a hook-and-eye lock on her bedroom door.

After two attempts to comfort her when she’d wake up in the middle of the night and not go back to sleep, I’d lock the door.  The first night she cried for 45 minutes, then fell asleep at the door. The next night she cried for 30 minutes, then slept next to her bed. The third night she cried for 10 minutes, and slept in her bed.  After that, she slept all night.

This sounds cold-hearted but in some ways, so is not letting kids have snacks anytime they want, or time-outs for discipline (we had to buckle that oldest child in her time-out chair, lest she wander around).  The advocates of the “family bed” strategy hold that kids should sleep with parents.  Of the cry-it-out strategy, one family bed advocate writes that parents think that the kid has “learned to sleep alone.  What the child has really learned is that their cries were not answered, their needs not met.”  Cry-it-out advocates argue that their kids have no emotional scars, while the family bed kids tend to be brats.

There’s more than one way to raise children.  If there was one right way, there’d be one book, one website, on how it’s done.  Since there’s hundreds of ways, there’s hundreds of books.  It comes down to what you can stand.  If you don’t mind the loss of privacy with kids in your bed, if you don’t mind restless sleepers, the family bed’s for you.  If you want your children to sleep in their own beds, then you’ll use some version of cry-it-out.

Everyone agrees on this: bedtime should be quiet, wind-down time.  No TV, phones, or video games within 2 hours of bedtime.  Then: bath, book, bed, prayers.  Lights out.

Be Happy! Be Healthy! Get Enough Sleep!

My mom loved to tell this story about school kids on a field trip.  She ran our church’s tutoring program for inner-city kids, providing fun and enrichment where their schools could not.  She once brought the crew to a planetarium, thinking the star show would excite them about science and the universe.  When the lights came up after the show however, every single one of the kids was fast asleep.  She laughed at herself about her failure that day, but now it makes me think about sleep as a growing health problem for kids.

School is starting soon, and it is time to get those kids back to sleep at a decent time.  Kids are getting less sleep than they need these days.  There are too many stimulating things to keep them up- computers, TVs with cable, i phones, video games,and too much soda.  Not getting enough sleep leads to many health problems.

Kids that don’t get enough sleep are less happy, and have fewer friends.  Who can be happy when they spend their day half in the bag with fatigue?  And who can make friends when they are groggy and grumpy? There is also recent evidence that asthma and anxiety attacks are more frequent in tired kids.  Most importantly, kids need to be awake in school to learn.  Every one should know that the most certain way to life-long happiness and success is a good education.

So how to get those kids to bed and asleep?  First, begin to walk those bedtimes back earlier and earlier.  If they are now getting to sleep at midnight, have lights out starting at 11pm for a few days, then 10 pm for a few more, and finally to 8 or 9 pm.  Don’t allow any screens in their bedrooms- this is how kids stay stimulated and awake without you necessarily knowing.  This means having no TVs, no computers, no video games, and no phones in their bedroom.  Finally, do not let them have soda at dinnertime or after (heck, they shouldn’t have soda anytime, except for very special occasions).

Its back to school and thus back to bed time.  Your kids deserve to be awake in school, to do well, be well, and be happy.  And maybe they’ll stay awake to enjoy the planetarium too!

Back To School: Eyes Open or Shut?

When I was a kid, I remember my parents getting a call from my older brother Pat’s teacher.  He was falling asleep in class.  Perhaps, the teacher suggested, he should get to bed sooner?  You would think, both my parents being teachers themselves, that they would have known that 11pm was too late a bedtime for a sixth grader!  But they took the advice with good humor, walked Pat’s bedtime back to 8pm, and he started to perform better in school.  In fact he grew up to go to college at MIT, so on the whole he and my parents did pretty good with the school thing.

Kids getting enough sleep is a problem.  A toddler needs about 12 hours of sleep per night, a school age kid needs 10-11 hours, and a teenager needs a good 8 to 9 hours.  Do your kids get that much sleep on a school night?  Experts are saying that more and more kids are going to school as walking zombies, as their sleep is cut short by more demands from in-home media, sports, activities, homework, and waking up early for school. 

If kids don’t get enough sleep, they have trouble doing well in school.  No one can concentrate on lessons or hear about homework assignments when they are drousy.   These kids also have problems getting along with their classmates- who isn’t grumpy after a poor night’s sleep?  Persistent sleepiness and the effects of school and friend trouble can lead to worse symptoms of depression.  Kids that don’t get enough sleep also get sick more easily, and then they come to see me.

How to fix a sleep problem?  First, of course, get them to bed earlier!  However, getting them to sleep requires some other things.  Make sure they don’t have any caffeinated drinks for dinner- no sodas or tea.  Don’t allow any scary or violent TV before bedtime (heck, no kid should be watching TV on a school night anyway!). 

When it is time for lights out in the bedroom- that means all lights, including those from TVs, computers, and cellphones.  These media should not be allowed in the bedroom anyway, ever!  Finally, kids should get to bed early enough so they can wake up to have time for breakfast.  Besides enough sleep, kids need a healthy breakfast, big or small, to do their best at school.

So get these kids to bed on time now, before school starts.  Walk those bedtimes back an hour a night so they can learn to fall asleep sooner and not be lying in bed awake for too long.   Encourage reading before bedtime instead of TV- science shows that brains calm down better with reading.  With a little attention to sleep, maybe your kids will end up going to MIT too!