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Solve Your Big Kid's Sleep Problems

The Delay Artist

Grace, the girl in the opening example, simply doesn't want to go to bed. In fact, the more her parents insist, cajole, threaten, or indulge, the more resistant she becomes.

Most sleep resistors act as if their bedtime is too early, but once the fussing ends, they may actually wind up short on rest. Five-year-olds need about 11 hours of sleep per night, which gradually lessens to 10 1/2 hours by age 7, 10 hours by age 9, and 9 1/2 to ten by age 12. But a better indicator of whether a child gets enough sleep is her behavior, says Marc Weissbluth, M.D., professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. If she wakes up rested but gets cranky later, or needs extra shut-eye on the weekend, she's probably sleep deprived.

Kids who buck bedtime generally like the attention it brings. But it's unhealthy for both parent and child to struggle with each other when tired, Dr. Weissbluth says. For the child, the nightly dramas themselves become the bedtime routine.

Changing this habit requires consistency—a tall order if parents are already so tired they lack the physical and emotional stamina it takes. ("My husband and I are usually both too wiped out to draw a line in the sand," McCleary admits.)

Announce during the day that you're instituting a new routine: "After you brush your teeth and put on pj's at eight o'clock, we'll read one chapter of a book together, and it's lights-out." No further explaining allowed. Consider starting the bedtime wind-down earlier than usual so you can spend reasonable one-on-one time with each child. If your kid resists, just keep calmly taking him back to his bedroom. Another tactic: the pass system. After you tuck her in, give your child a bedtime pass exchangeable for only one excused departure from the room after bedtime. A kid saving the valuable pass may fall asleep waiting to use it, says Patrick Friman, Ph.D., a researcher at Boys' Home in Boys Town, NE, who reports success with the method.