Jun 09, 2010
Whenever I get together with other families with young children, almost invariably, there will be one or two parents who struggle with their child’s sleep. Issues range from frequent awakenings to too frequent feedings to sleeping in the parent’s bed. It’s no surprise then why so many adults in this country suffer from a myriad of sleep problems. Perhaps this is also the reason why sleep aids are one of the most popular drugs in this country and why children as young as 7 years old are being prescribed sleep aids to help them fall asleep. Although it’s difficult to admit, America has become the land of the free and the home of the… sleepless.
Resources For Getting Your Child To Sleep
These days, many households with young children endure daily battles with sleep. It’s not that the parents aren’t equipped with the right information. in fact, the number of resources and books that focus on how to get your child to sleep has doubled if not tripled over the last 2 to 3 years. Sleeplessness is no longer the problem reserved for the old and restless. It’s now one of the most serious problems that parents of young children face each and every night.
Ten years ago, with our first child Jonas, we only had about a third of the resources we have now on getting your child to sleep. At that time, Dr. Richard Ferber’s technique was in vogue. Despite its slight overtone of 50’s style rigidity and inflexibility, his concepts made the most sense to us and we agreed with his primary principle that children should and can be taught how to soothe themselves back to sleep. Essentially, “Ferberization” is a gradual desensitization process. Using this technique, we were able to teach Jonas to sleep through the night (10 hours) around 4 months. Since then, this method of teaching our other two children to sleep has been a lifesaver both for their health and our sanity.
Of course just because this method worked for me doesn’t mean that it will work for everyone. Every baby and what appeals to parents are different. Even for us, there were nights when my wife would cry outside the bedroom door, along with the baby, conflicted by her instinct to burst right in to comfort our child and her desire to teach the baby to soothe himself back to sleep as prescribed by Dr. Ferber.
What ultimately did it for us was that we believed and desperately needed a good nights sleep. As simple as that sounds, we knew back then what so much research and study are telling us now: That poor sleep can lead to a host of health problems if not managed early on.
As parents of young children it’s hard to tell sometimes how much sleep your child needs. Some people say that it’s better to let nature take its course—for the child to determine for him or herself how long or short they need to sleep. In my case, this would have never worked, as our oldest would only sleep, prior to Ferberization, 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
With children, going natural, like breast-feeding rather than bottle-feeding, cooking your own baby food rather than giving them processed foods in jars is infinitely better. Yet, sometimes, given certain situations, parents need to assess now and then it costs to hold on to those ideals. It’s important, in other words, not to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
When Sleep Evades
When my brother had his first child, the situation was vastly different. In the four years since I had my oldest son, the pro-baby movement was in full swing. At that time, it was considered okay by most pediatricians to suggest that their child sleep in two to three hour spurts even at night. What was more important was that the child be nursed on demand—even at 9 to 12 months when solid foods should have diminished the frequency of these late night feedings.
His older daughter, as a result often slept in their bed until the age of 3-4. It was much easier for my sister- in-law to nurse her right then and there, to get in a few minutes more sleep, rather than getting up every 2 to 3 hours to get the baby out from the crib. Even now, at age 6, my niece is not a “good sleeper”. Even worse, her sister, who just turned 3 has recently been waking up multiple times during the night.
Another woman I met is experiencing similar problems with her 8 month old. Her baby has recently been waking up two to three times at night to nurse even though he was sleeping through the night at 3 months. Yet another couple I recently met complained that their 5 year old still wakes up 3-4 times every night. In general, children should be able to sleep through the night after 3-6 months. It’s obvious that these guidelines are not the norm.
Pediatric Problems Linked with Poor Sleep
Believe me when I say that I’m the last person to make any moral judgments about parents with sleepless children.
It’s not that what they’re doing is wrong, but that bad sleep habits for the child eventually affects not only the parents, but studies have shown that sleep problems as a young child has been linked to various serious health issues later on in life.
One such study showed that the presence of sleep problems at age 3-8 strongly predicted the onset of alcohol, cigarette and marijuana use later in life for boys and alcohol use for girls. Another Finnish study showed that perceived tiredness was related to use of psychoactive substances in teens. Other studies have shown that sleep problems are related to anxiety and depression in teens. Children with sleep-breathing problems also had a higher incidence of inattention and hyperactivity.
How to Get Your Child To Sleep
The most important thing to begin with when helping your child develop good sleep hygiene is to develop a sleep routine that both of you can keep consistently. Feeding times, nap times, and bed times should be kept as close to schedule as possible. As any parent of young children can tell you, one late night out with the baby or a severe cold can severely throw off not only the child’s sleep patterns, but the entire family’s as well. Last month when Kathy and I were at the movies (our children were with our baby sitter) I was disturbed to see so many infants and young toddlers out with their parents watching an action-packed movie at 11:30 at night. What’s worse was that they were eating popcorn and drinking caffeinated soda.
These days, cutting down on any form of stimulation just before bedtime can be a challenge. Cell phones, computers, cable TV, and all the noisy and annoying children’s toys can be difficult to control entirely. But even the activities they engage in during the day can affect their sleep. One recent study showed that for every hour a child is sedentary during the day, either watching TV or on the computer or even reading, it takes an additional three minutes to fall asleep at night. A related ad hoc study showed that children who were more active during the day, playing outside or involved in sports activities, fell asleep faster and slept longer throughout the night than children who were more inactive. Simply put, turn off the TV if you want your child to sleep better.
Sugar is also blamed for various health and sleep issues today. It’s common sense to avoid a brownie or a soda just before bedtime. Eating healthier in general can promote better sleep overall.
Once your child has passed the infant stages, she should be able to sleep through the night after a good dinner. But don’t feed him just before bedtime. Eating too close to bedtime affects hormones that affect weight, appetite and metabolism. This is true even for grown ups. In these situations if you have even a slight sleep-breathing problem (24% of men and 9% of women), then juices get suctioned up into the throat, not only waking you up, but causing various throat symptoms like throat pain, post-nasal drip, chronic cough, and hoarseness.
An underlying sleep-breathing problem can also be a major cause of sleep problems especially between the ages of 3-6. Large tonsils and adenoids are very common at this age, and if your child’s breathing is labored in any way, or if he snores, or is a mouth breather, see your pediatrician about it, especially if your child seems tired all the time, or has difficulty staying focused or concentrating during the day. If either of the parents snore or stop breathing, then there’s even more reason to suspect an underlying sleep-breathing problem.
For the many other various issues that can arise, help is available. Go beyond the generic information that’s available on sites like WebMD, or the Mayo Clinic’s site. Invest in books, DVDs, or professional counseling for your child’s sleep needs, as well as for your own sleep needs. Set a good example by following good sleep habits yourself. Ask your friends who have succeeded what works for them, and don’t give up. Believe me, being able to get a good night’s sleep consistently is well worth the effort.
Steven Y. Park, MD is a surgeon and author of the book, Sleep, Interrupted: A physician reveals the #1 reason why so many of us are sick and tired. Endorsed by New York Times best-selling authors Christiane Northrup, M.D., Dean Ornish, M.D., Mark Liponis, M.D., Mary Shomon, and many others. http://doctorstevenpark.com.