5 Solutions to Your Big Kid's Sleep Problems -- No Door Locking Required

sleepy mom and child

When my kids started sleeping through the night well before their first birthdays, I wanted to throw a party. No more sleepless nights! No more 3 a.m. wakeup calls! It's all downhill from here! Um, yeah. No one told me about the toddler night terrors or the sleepwalking bouts. Even now, my youngest, who just started middle school, still occasionally appears in our doorway, begging me to come sit with her because she had a creepy dream that she just can't get out of her head. That's why this New York Times essay "Our Sleep Training Nightmare" really hit home for me -- and for a lot of other readers, too.

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In her essay, writer Lisa Selin Davis explains that her older daughter is such a light sleeper that she wakes up regularly, all through the night -- and, naturally, that means no sleep for Mom and Dad, either. Davis and her husband successfully tried the "cry-it-out" method when their child was a baby, but when she turned 2, something changed. Now their daughter is almost 7 -- well past the age when most kids are able to snooze in their own beds all night -- but she refuses to (or can't) sleep alone. It's a battle that many of us can relate to, but Davis's situation was so serious that she consulted a number of experts, including a sleep specialist and behavioral therapist, in search of answers.

But can you really "train" a sleepless older child into better bedtime habits, or is it a lost cause? We talked to experts, and what they had to say should bring hope to all baggy-eyed, yawning moms.

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"It's never too late to teach a child to sleep well," says Laura Swartz, a certified sleep consultant and author of Healthy Happy Sleep. "As long as the child is healthy, it's in his or her best interest to remedy the sleep debt as soon as possible!"

She goes on to explain that getting a full night's worth of Zs -- which is about 10 to 12 hours a night for preschoolers and early elementary-schoolers -- is key not only to good health, but good behavior as well. Aggressiveness, tantrums, and moodiness have been all linked to poor sleep, so a "difficult" child may simply be one who hasn't had enough rest.

The most alarming part of Davis's essay is the advice she got from the doctors she consulted about her daughter's sleep problem: They told her to lock her child in her room, ignoring any protests. Too harsh a strategy? Absolutely, our experts say.

"I'm not a fan of locking a child in her room," says Jennifer Waldburger, MSN, cofounder of Sleepy Planet Parenting and author of The Sleepeasy Solution. "For one thing, there's a safety issue; if there's a fire, heaven forbid, a child needs to be able to get out of her room safely. Second, locking a child in her room could cause her to develop a strong negative association with being in there, which will only exacerbate the sleep problem."

On the other hand, Swartz counters, closing -- but not locking -- the door can be a strategy for a child who refuses to follow the sleep rules. "The first time the child gets out of bed, the parent calmly places him into bed and closes the door halfway. The second time, the parent remains calm and closes the door until it's cracked. The third time, the parent closes it all the way, then opens it after the child is asleep. When he gets out in the night, the same steps occur, so he realizes how his actions affect him, not his mom and dad."

That sounds reasonable, but as any parent who's struggled with this issue knows: It can be easier said than done. What other advice did our experts give?

1. Rule out a medical issue:

The first step, says Swartz, is to rule out any physical causes behind the sleeplessness. Allergies, colds, and enlarged tonsils can all interfere with breathing and wake a child up at nights; ditto itchy skin from dry winter air or a condition like eczema. If you suspect an illness is to blame -- especially if your child's sleep problem crops up suddenly -- see your pediatrician

2. Work out a plan with your child:

Then sit down with your child and create a bedtime plan together. "The more a child feels she has a say in how change is unfolding, the more likely she is to get on board," says Waldburger. With that in mind, sit down with your child and ask her what would help her get a good night's sleep.

"Write down all ideas, no matter how far-fetched," says Waldburger. Together, you can come up with an acceptable arrangement; for instance, two bedtime stories followed by a goodnight kiss and a night-light left on.

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3. Set the stage:

Once the plan is in place, the next step is to create the right environment for a good night's sleep. That includes plenty of outdoor exercise to burn off all that excess energy ... and a ban on electronics at least an hour before bedtime.

"All screens -- TV, laptop, tablet, phone -- emit blue light, which signals the brain to stay on alert," says Waldburger.

Why? The light mimics sunlight, which reduces the brain's production of the "sleep hormone" melatonin. "These devices also provide stimulation of multiple senses -- audio and visual, as well as touch and other kinesthetic stimulation -- which can make it harder to 'switch off' and relax."

4. Ease out of co-sleeping:

If your child has been co-sleeping with you, Waldburger says that a gradual approach to sleeping alone may be best. Sit in a chair by your child's bed until he falls asleep, moving the chair closer and closer to the door each night until he gets used to not having you by his side.

5. Stick with it:

The key, say our experts, is to be consistent and stay firm. If you give in "just this once" to requests for a later bedtime or a night in Mom and Dad's bed, then your child knows that the sleep rules are meant to be broken.

Swartz recommends trying your sleep plan for at least a week before making any changes; she adds that sometimes a child will rebel after a couple of days of improvement as a "one last go" to see how far he or she can push the envelope. "If there is progress in the beginning and then suddenly the child starts pushing back harder than ever before, this means it's working."

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Davis finally reached a compromise that worked for her family: Her sleep-deprived daughter can sleep on a mat in the parents' bedroom as long as she doesn't wake Mom and Dad before morning. Other parents may prefer to set a goal of having their child stay in his or her own room all night. Whatever your goal is, getting your child into better sleep habits isn't a quick fix.

"I always tell parents that sleep problems don't manifest overnight; it took time for things to get out of sync, and it will take time and effort to set them right," says Swartz.

Here's to sweet -- and uninterrupted -- dreams for all of us!

 

Image via Deviant/Shutterstock

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