Teaching Kids to Sleep

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

When a child's sleep problems are entirely behavioral, nighttime can become a battle of wills in which the shortest person in the fight is usually the victor.

Sleep specialists say these little tyrants need to be taught to sleep. It doesn't have to be painful, but it takes discipline, patience and, in homes with two parents, the commitment of both of them.

Maureen and Shane Kramer of Bethesda were overrun by their 2-year-old daughter, Lindsay. At first it was just a pacifier: put it back in when it falls out. But after baby Griff was born last summer, Lindsay started coming into her parents' room several times a night.

The Kramers discovered that Lindsay would sleep when someone was in the room with her. Shane Kramer began sleeping on the floor next to her several times a week, just so the family could get some rest. "We needed some control over the situation," Maureen said.

They called Annika Brindley, a Bethesda sleep specialist ( http://www.littlesleepers.com/ ) who helps parents train their children -- even the most intractable ones -- to get a solid night's sleep. And within weeks, even little Lindsay Kramer was sleeping soundly. Brindley said parents are confused about what to do and fall into bad habits bit by bit. At first it's nursing to sleep, then it's driving in the car, then it's hours in the stroller, just so the baby will sleep.

She likes to meet with parents in person, then dispenses frequent guidance by phone. Here are some of her main suggestions:

· Follow a regular bedtime routine every night, such as a bath, a little playtime and some reading. "Children need predictability to feel safe," she said.

· Don't let the child fall asleep in your arms and then move him. "It's kind of like you going to sleep in your bed and waking up in your kitchen," she said. "It's scary."

· Use a transitional object like a security blanket or other "lovie" the child associates with you.

· Look for sleep cues. If she's yawning or eye-rubbing, she's already overtired. Kids can fall asleep when they don't seem sleepy.

Learning to sleep is critical for the child, Brindley says. "If you think about sleep as nutrition, you wouldn't say, 'Oh, my child's not eating, I'll just let him skip a couple of meals today,' " she says.

Sarah Bauers and Steve Weissman of the District learned the hard way how important it is to correct a child's sleep habits. Brindley helped them turn what had become a wrenching, two- to three-hour bedtime ordeal into a simple turn-out-the-light-and-say-goodnight experience, Bauers said -- in three weeks.

It's unclear who's happier: 8-month-old Owen or his parents. "It's been a complete life change," Bauers said.

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

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