Sleep is among the biggest problems for young children and their families. Since sleep is a separation issue for parents and an autonomy issue for the child, it’s important to try to distinguish between the two.

Every three to four hours, a child moves from deep sleep into an agitated light sleep. Most children cry out and move around in bed to find a way of comforting themselves before they can get back to sleep.

During the first few months of life, a baby learns how to help herself manage these cycles. By 4 months, she is likely to be able to sleep eight hours, coming up to light sleep twice. By 6 to 8 months, if she can sleep 10 to 12 hours, she manages these agitated periods three times. Many children rely on a thumb or a blanket or toy — a “lovey” — when they rouse.

A child learning to get herself to sleep on her own also depends upon her parents’ ability to separate from her at night, whether or not they co-sleep (share the same bed) with her. A parent who either feeds or rocks or cuddles her at each light sleep episode becomes part of the child’s sleep pattern.

A common reason for sleep problems today is that parents who are away at work all day feel cut off from the child. They instinctively want to make up for it at night.

When the child rouses, they often pick her up to love and comfort her, and nestle her until she falls back asleep. Yet there is some evidence that the more deeply a child sleeps at night, the more available her attention for learning is in the daytime.

Going to bed alone can be a challenge in the 3-to-5 age group. Bedtime is an opportunity for a child to test parents’ intentions, and the testing will continue into age 6 if parents are ambivalent.

If possible, ask child-care workers and kindergarten teachers to arrange the afternoon rest period to accommodate your evening schedule. A child who can rest from 1 to 3 p.m. will be ready to join parents for supper and then enjoy a period of closeness from 7 to 8 p.m. This can be a quiet time of reading together, a song and/or a prayer.

After that, parents must stick to a predetermined number (one to two) of glasses of water and trips to the potty. A limit to these visits is necessary, unless an emergency arises — an illness or a bad day.

A firm, non-ambivalent approach helps the child with her own limits, and discourages her from making demands for the parents’ attention at night.

When a child rouses during the night, should you go to her? Of course. No child deserves to be deserted. I have never felt that “crying it out” helped a child learn to get to sleep or a parent learn to separate. But whether a family is co-sleeping or not, the child needs to know that falling back to sleep is her job.

Steps to a restful sleep for everybody:

Decide upon a limited number of times to go to your child after you’ve read to her, cuddled her and put her to bed.

Stick to that limit, reminding her, “You can manage now.”

When she rouses during the night, go to her, comfort her, but do not take her out of bed.

Don’t react or interact unless the action is soothing. A verbal battle is unsettling. Be quietly firm.

Take turns attending to the child. It symbolizes your joint resolution to be separate.

Croon to her quietly, “You can do it! You can do it!”

Encourage a “lovey” or “soother” such as a doll, stuffed animal or special blanket during the day; give it to her at night for rousing and sleeping.

Eliminating naps eventually becomes necessary — but they should always be avoided after 3 p.m.


— New York Times Syndicate