If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial. I will post specific information for parents and children based on my book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” Please do not be put off by my book’s length. This is a reference book. Read only the topic of interest to you.
There is a concern that severe and/or chronic unhealthy sleep in young children might cause brain damage that might be permanent (Blog Posts 50–51). However, during the first several years, sleep modulates temperament (Blog Post 48) and earlier bedtimes produce benefits. This suggests that many of the harmful effects of unhealthy sleep in young children are reversible. Sadly, a child might be trapped in a state of sleepiness that is unappreciated by her parents. Helping her to sleep better through the night is a liberating experience as she awakens into a better version of herself.
Here is a mother’s story about her daughter, Zaylin. She was cared for at a nationally ranked academic pediatric center and was so severely impaired that her psychologists and psychiatrists thought she was autistic. Sleep Rules (Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child, page 309) were used with positive and negative contingencies, Mom got Dad to put her to bed at night, and the bedtime hour was moved much earlier.
My daughter Zaylin was born with complex birth defects requiring multiple surgeries and prolonged hospitalizations during her first few years. The consequence of this medical history, that resolved approximately one year ago, at age five, is that she had many behavioral problems not only at school but also in our home. We regularly got reports from her teachers for “acting out” and she had an IEP [Individualized Education Plan] as she struggled with academics in school. In addition, she was very mean and nasty to her brother and very defiant at bedtime. I sought out many therapists and advice in an effort to help her, but nothing seemed to work. Part of the stress for me was Zaylin’s struggles and also, the difficulty for doctors to properly diagnose her problem. At first, she was diagnosed with autism. She was later diagnosed with developmental delay and PTSD (from her repeated and prolonged hospitalizations). After many tests and many therapists, none of these diagnoses seemed to fit my daughter.
We used Sleep Rules and she protested. I started by taking away her stuffed animals one by one. She loves them and has plenty of them on her bed. Then I offered her a cookie for breakfast. I would let her dad put her to sleep because I would baby her and he didn’t. Her normal bedtime was 9:00 p.m. and we moved it to 6:00 p.m.
It was not until I got Zaylin on a better sleep schedule, at age 6 years, that I realized that her sleep deprivation was causing all of these behavioral issues. I was skeptical because of my past failed attempts. After one week of applying Dr. Weissbluth’s advice, I saw some changes. It has been four months and my daughter is a new person! The sleep strategy allowed Zaylin to sleep longer through the night without any more bedtime battles and her improved behavior in school was noticed by her teachers, and, at home, she turned into an entirely new child, saving my daughter and our family.
Two years after her mother wrote her story, her bedtime is 7:00 p.m. and she continues to thrive academically, socially, and artistically!
Another mother wrote:
The moment my daughter, Amanda, arrived home from the hospital, she exploded with a very bad case of colic. I took her to the pediatrician’s office several times, only to be told there was “not a thing wrong, relax.” I also received several suggestions about nursing and a pat on the back. All of these suggestions irritated me, and I felt as though I was being perceived as an anxious, first-time mother.
After twelve weeks of crying and screaming, Amanda was evaluated by two child development specialists. I decided we should work with one until my daughter’s crying and screaming settled down. We also saw a psychiatrist, who recommended medication and also suggested that we continue to be followed by the development specialists. In the meantime, our lives had become a nightmare. Amanda cried most of the day and always screamed in the evening. To our horror, this behavior had worked itself into the night hours, too.
By 5 months, we were referred to Dr. Weissbluth for what we hoped was a sleep disorder. I say “hoped,” because we were at the point of seeing a pediatric neurologist and having an EEG done. I was very frightened for my daughter, and my husband and I were exhausted. I was eager for the consultation. My daughter had definitely been cursed with colic. Could this now be wired exhaustion from a sleep disorder caused by the treatment for colic—rocking, swinging, motion all the time? It was.
Amanda was old enough now to try “crying it out.” It was the most difficult thing I’ve had to do as a new mother.
The first night, Amanda screamed, choked, and sobbed for thirty-two minutes. I remember feeling sick to my stomach.
The first two days weren’t too terrible. However, the third and fourth were almost intolerable. Amanda would cry through her entire nap time. Then I would get her up to keep Dr. Weissbluth’s time frame going. Her temperament after these episodes is known only to mothers who have been through the same ordeal! When she would scream for over an hour during nap time and in the evening, I felt cruel, insensitive, and guilty. Three things kept me going: my husband’s support; Dr. Weissbluth’s concern, encouragement, and compassion; and the fact that I knew it had to be done—Amanda had to learn to sleep.
It took Amanda about a week to catch on to the idea. The bags under her eyes faded, her sporadic screaming attacks stopped, and her personality was that of a predictable baby—a sweetheart when rested and a bear when past a nap time or her bedtime.
I would offer these suggestions to other mothers and fathers who have to take this measure in order to teach their babies to sleep. You, as parents, have to understand and believe intellectually that it is the right thing to do. Otherwise feelings of guilt will overpower you, and you will give in. You must have the support of your spouse, as it will be too much of a strain to bear alone.
You are doing what is best for your baby. It seems cruel and unacceptable, as a loving new mother, to let your baby cry. But it is a fact of parenting—many, many things will bring tears and protests in the years to come.
Enlist the support of a sympathetic friend as much as you feel the need to. I found close telephone contact a tremendous help. Some parents may not need this close interaction, but many of us do.