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'90s FAMILY : Sleep Inducements

August 09, 1995|LEO SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's no such thing as a quick, foolproof list of instructions for hassle-free bedtimes.

"Quick guidelines just don't exist," says Dr. Richard Ferber, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital in Boston and the author of "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems" (Simon and Schuster, 1986).

But short of solutions, Ferber and others do have plenty of suggestions.

First, parents need to figure out why their children don't want to go to bed. Children may be stressed out, wired up, afraid of something they saw on television, afraid of being separated from other family members or simply stalling. In worst-case scenarios they may befearful of abuse from parents or siblings.

Ferber says parents can begin the analysis by determining if the bedtime they have set is really appropriate.

"Parents should pay close attention to whether they are trying to put youngsters into bed at an hour when they are not ready to fall asleep," he says. "If a parent is always trying to put a youngster to bed at 7:30 but he or she isn't ready until 8, maybe it's too early."

Once the bedtime is determined, parents should be firm about it and stick to a bedtime preparation routine.

"Parents and youngsters should have 25 minutes of good interaction before bedtime, maybe reading a story," Ferber says. "As they get older you may do less reading, but more discussion before bed."

Whatever the activity, it should take place in the child's bedroom. That way, when it's time for lights out, the parent will be leaving the child in the quiet bedroom, rather than the child leaving the parent in another more alive and exciting room of the house.

Frank Deffry, a counselor at the Marina Center for Therapy in Marina del Rey, agrees with the importance of wind-down activities, even suggesting relaxation exercises.

"They can help a kid slow down in the evenings," he says. "Have the kid sit or lie down and go through the muscle groups from head to toe. Tighten the muscles up, take a deep breath, and relax. What that does is get a lightweight endorphin thing going in the kid's body and it zones them out."

In the case of children who are afraid to go to bed, Ferber says parents can give a little latitude.

"With a youngster who is really unable to tolerate separating at night, there's no reason you can expect them to spend the night by themselves. Forcing it is only going to make it worse," he says. "Somebody sleeping in the room with them, or them sleeping in a sleeping bag in your room, may be necessary for them to calm down."

Tom Prinz, a Ventura family therapist and author of "Dragon Slaying for Parents" (Starburst Publishers, 1992), says many parents mistakenly disregard their children's fears.

"Parents have difficulty accepting kids' feelings. If they say, 'I'm afraid of the dark,' the parents' knee-jerk reaction is, 'No, you don't have to be afraid of the dark,' " he says. "They should accept the feelings and then try to reassure the child. And then look at what might be feeding those fears, maybe scary movies or TV."

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