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Healthy Sleep How-To

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.