By Angela Pirisi
Stressed because you feel like you’re the only one whose kids aren’t sleeping “right,” i.e., by the experts’ books? Don’t be. “The important thing overall is consistency, so think of a routine that you can live with most of the time,” says Dr. Penny Corkum, a child psychologist specializing in sleep problems at Halifax’s Dalhousie University. Follow through each night, and you’ll be on track to reclaiming your adult time. So ditch the guilt, and do what’s best for your family ““ even if it means breaking some rules.
“Let your baby “cry it out.’ “
Our Verdict: A technique called “controlled crying,” popularized by Dr. Richard Ferber, author of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (Fireside Books), involves putting infants to bed at a particular time each night, then ignoring their crying and tantrums in graduated intervals. Now who’s going to get any sleep that way? Besides, no one enjoys getting the cold shoulder, least of all attention- and touch-craving babies.
“You know your baby best, so while you don’t want to jump at every gurgle or whimper, you need to pay attention to the cry that says something’s wrong ““ check that limbs aren’t entrapped, and rule out potential health conditions or discomforts [like constipation, sleep apnea],” says Dr. Michelle Ponti, a community pediatrician in London, Ont., and Canadian Paediatric Society spokesperson. Newborns, however, should never be left to cry. (Also, make sure that baby isn’t too warm or too cold: clamminess at the back of her neck means a lighter-weight sleeper may be needed, and shivering or goosebumps means you should break out the warmer one.) Dr. Ponti suggests a modified Ferber approach may work for some families. “Try sitting in bed cuddling after storytime, progressing to sitting in a chair, until you’re out the door a few nights later,” she says. With preschoolers to school-age kids, Dr. Ponti suggests making up a visual chart you can check off with your child to help put the bedtime routine into perspective, and let her feel more in control: brush teeth, check; put on pjs, check; go to bathroom, check; storytime, check; kiss Mommy/Daddy goodnight, check; tuck in teddy bear, check.
“Supervise teens and enforce a bedtime.”
Our Verdict: Providing another reason for you and your teen to clash only adds friction to an otherwise peaceful night. But setting parameters is important. If you see light streaming from under his bedroom door or hear keyboard clicks when you head to the bathroom at 2 a.m., it’s a problem. But rather than dragging your teen to bed each night, monitoring and modifying his daytime activity is an easier strategy to help reset his sleep cycle. If he’s sitting in his room with the drapes shut, playing video games all day, he’s missing out on natural daylight, which helps with melatonin production and maintenance of the body’s wake/sleep cycles. If waking up is an issue, drawing the blinds to let in morning light can work better than an alarm. Corkum also suggests keeping the bedroom as tech-free as possible ““ no tv or computer ““ because they promote wakefulness. (And don’t be hypocrites, Mom and Dad: set an example by keeping the master bedroom tv-free, too.)
“Nix those night lights!”
Our Verdict: “Anything that adds an element of comfort will help promote sleep,” says Dr. Ponti. Some experts believe that night lights prevent deeper sleep ““ but, as any toddler or preschooler will attest to, so does fear of monsters.
One highly publicized study a few years ago suggested a link between use of night lights and myopia (nearsightedness) later in life, but this theory was proven wrong in a subsequent study. Night lights also create a safer room environment, in case your toddler decides to sneak down the hall to your room. However, a quiet, dark, cool space is most conducive to sleep.
“No food or drink before bed.”
Our Verdict: Sure, claiming thirst or hunger are two classic stalling techniques, and letting them chug a litre of water or chomp on sugary treats before bed isn’t wise. However, a nutritious snack is fine, and it may help prevent some kids from waking up from hunger. “We encourage snacking for toddlers two to three hours after dinner or even sooner if supper was small, and it doesn’t matter how close to bedtime, unless you notice a problem,” says Laurie Bailey, a nutrition specialist and registered dietitian with the Calgary Health Region. “For toddlers, keep in mind it’s not a meal but a snack, so choose one or two items from two food groups, like cheese and toast, fruit and yogurt, cereal and milk. Teens are eating machines, and their calorie needs are high, so don’t worry if they end up having a meal-sized snack ““ a sandwich and milk, or leftover chicken and pizza.” But caffeine is a no-no at any age, and avoid junk food, not because it affects sleep, but because it’s unhealthy in general.
“Don’t let your toddler sleep with you.”
Our Verdict: It’s fine (as long as you don’t mind junior hogging the blankets): there’s no developmental reason to banish them to their own room. “Co-sleeping won’t necessarily hinder their independence, just because they refuse to go to sleep on their own,” says Corkum. “If they’re dressing, putting on shoes, brushing teeth [themselves], they’re showing independence in other areas.” But you might want to invest in a king-size bed for everyone’s comfort. And a pullout sofa in the den, so you can relocate your sex life until you reclaim your bedroom.