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Healthy Sleep How-To

BY THE TIME MY SON LUCAS WAS 10 months old, bedtime was nothing short of a nightmare. We rocked. We nursed. We danced. I patted, stroked, and caressed. I held my breath as I tiptoed backward to the door, circumventing the creaky floorboards. But then the dog would bark. Or a sibling would shriek. Cue the wails. If Lucas was asleep in an hour, that was a good night. That is, until we invariably repeated the process at 3 a.m. To find myself so lost after successfully shepherding two babies to the Land of Nod was embarrassing. Good thing my pride didn't stop me from seeking help. Wasting no time, I went straight to a professional.

Enter Kim West, a child and family therapist in Annapolis, MD, who specializes in helping weary parents get their kids to sleep. Lucky for me, West works with out-of-town clients by phone (to contact her, check out her website, Sleeplady.com). She asked me to complete a detailed questionnaire and to provide an outline of a typical day and night -- including everything we do to get Lucas to sleep. West uses this information both to pinpoint the problem and to tailor a plan.

Our first phone interview lasted an hour and a half, and during it, West cleared up one of the great conundrums of parenting: Why do kids seem to be more wired the less shut-eye they get? If a child doesn't go to sleep at the physiologically appointed time, his brain will say, "Fine, stay up then," and secrete a hormone called cortisol to help keep him awake. As a result, "it takes him longer to go to sleep when you finally get him to bed, and thanks to residual cortisol in his brain, he'll wake up earlier than usual the next day, be overtired, and have trouble napping," says West. "It's a downward spiral."

But that still didn't 100 percent explain why I couldn't get Lucas to sleep -- and have him stay there. The answer was simple, she said: I wasn't supposed to be getting Lucas to dreamland -- that was his job. Mine was to teach him the way.

Before I could get started, though, West gave us some goals. She said that at 10 months, Lucas should be able to log about 11 hours of zzz's each night -- and zonk himself back out if he wakes up; he should have a morning and an afternoon nap, ideally for at least an hour each time; and we (meaning me, his dad, and his sitter) should aim to put him down in his crib drowsy but awake.

Destination: Dreamland

That was all good in theory, but we were dealing with Lucas here. Unfazed, West provided a road map:

  • GIVE HIM A ROOM OF HIS OWN. Because 4-year-old Eliza tended to wake up when Lucas did, and Lucas sometimes woke up when Eliza went to bed, West asked whether it would be possible for them to sleep in different rooms. We'd been planning to separate the kids anyway, but we hadn't gotten around to it. So until we could get Eliza's new room painted and set up, we moved her twin bed into our room. (If we hadn't had an extra bedroom, West would've had us move Eliza out temporarily, until Lucas was consistently snoozing through the night, and then teach her good "sleep manners," i.e., no talking to or playing with the baby.) We also equipped Lucas's room with roomdarkening shades and a white-noise machine.

  • INTRODUCE HIM TO ONE TRUE LOVEY. West explained that Lucas probably hadn't latched onto a security object himself because he always had Mommy to hang on to. To play matchmaker, I was to have the intended object of affection on hand while nursing -- something soft and safe, like a square cut from a flannel blanket -- and encourage him to squeeze it instead of me. (Babies over 1 can take a small stuffed animal to bed.) His dad and the sitter needed to do the same during bottles.

  • ADOPT A CONSISTENT ROUTINE. That's what would cue his brain that it's time to go to bed. The key was to do the activities in the same order before each nap and bedtime. I asked about playing music (I almost always turned on a Norah Jones CD for us). In general, West doesn't advocate using music; some kids get so used to it that they aren't able to sleep without it. But I liked it as a bedtime signal (and found it relaxing, too), so we compromised and agreed to let it play through only once -- and only before bed. Most important of all: I couldn't let him fall asleep while nursing, West said. If he started to drift off, it was time to put him down.

I know plenty of parents have had success with letting their babies cry it out at night, but I just didn't have the stomach for it.

Coping with the tears

Naturally, none of this was going to happen without a good fight from Lucas. I know plenty of parents have had success with letting their babies cry it out at night, but I just didn't have the stomach for it. But West had a solution that was surprisingly simple and reassuringly humane. The day-by-day breakdown:

  • DAYS 1 THROUGH 3: After reading and nursing, I was to put Lucas in his crib and sit right next to it while he cried for however long it took him to go to sleep. I could talk to him and pat him, but I couldn't pick him up.

  • DAYS 4 THROUGH 6: I should move my chair halfway between the crib and the door and reassure him verbally from there.

  • DAYS 7 AND 8: I'm supposed to sit right by the door and continue talking.

  • DAY 9: By now, I should be able to leave the room immediately.

The plan in action

I struck a deal with my 12-year-old, Will, to keep his sister occupied for five bucks per week. West had signed off on a 7 p.m. bedtime for Lucas, with an ETA in Dreamland of around 7:30 p.m. At the appointed hour (we started on a Friday), I announced that it was time to go night-night, picked him up, and climbed the stairs to his room. Everything went smoothly at first: We sat and read a few books, then I turned on Norah Jones and we nursed. I tried redirecting Lukey's always-roaming hand from my nose to a meltingly soft swatch from an old receiving blanket, but he kept pushing it away and grabbing my fingers. At 7:15 p.m., he'd finished his snack and I laid him down in his crib along with the rejected lovey. He promptly popped up and started screaming. I patted him through the crib slats and talked to him reassuringly, but he screamed and screamed. It was tough, but since I wasn't actually leaving him, I could take it. He kept crying, I kept talking -- and then, miraculously, he lay down and closed his eyes. It was pitch-black in the room, but I heard his breathing change and knew he was out. It was 7:27 p.m.

I was ready to leave the room as soon as I put him in his crib. Even he seemed eager for this big step.

The next night, Lucas went into the crib at 7:10 p.m., screeched for ten minutes, and spent the next 20 moving around and getting comfortable. Could it be possible? No crying!

On night number three, he had no patience for books, so I put him down at 7:01. He spent half an hour wiggling, but he was asleep at 7:36 p.m.

By the following Saturday night, I'd moved from cribside to the door; Lukey had fallen in love with another cozy blankie scrap; and both my husband and our sitter had mastered the art of putting Lucas to bed. I spoke or e-mailed with West almost daily, giving her reports of Lucas's progress. She offered praise, encouragement, and refinements to the routine. When Lucas slept for nearly two hours one morning, West advised me to wake him after an hour and a half if it happened again. "It will help preserve his afternoon nap," she said.

I can't say there weren't glitches, though: Most notably, on the fifth night, Lucas woke up at around 3 a.m. and cried so pitifully that I was aching to hold him. After half an hour, my husband took over the patting and chatting until he settled back down. (Later, West reassured me that it would've been okay to pick him up; we were still in the early stages of reteaching him, and the point isn't to torture either of us.)

By the time night number nine rolled around, I was ready to leave Lucas's room as soon as I put him in his crib. Even he seemed eager to try this big step, looking so sleepy by 6:50 p.m. that I went ahead and took him up.

He let me flip through a few books, but by 7:02 p.m., it was clear he was ready to move on. Into his crib he went. I kissed him good night, left, and went across the hall to my bedroom to read. Lucas was so quiet that I actually forgot about him until a half hour later. I crept into his room to find him fast asleep.

From that night on, Lucas went to bed just as easily. Most amazing, he maintained his sleep habits during and despite a number of family trips -- sleeping in the car, in a crib at my mom's house, and in a portable crib at hotels. He eventually broke up with blankie scrap and moved on to Blue Dog, but no matter: Whatever he slept with, or where or when, bedtime for little Lucas was no longer a nightmare -- and that was a mommy dream come true.

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