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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.

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