Q: My son, almost 4, has battled going to bed for several months. Then in the morning he complains he's tired, and it's a constant battle to get him ready. His bedtime is 8 to 8:30 p.m.
A: This child is comfoozled -- so exhausted that he's overwhelmed. The solution is more sleep.
When the Mitchells of Davidson, N.C., shifted their son's bedtime from 7:30 to 7 p.m., they had no idea how much difference the change would make. No more stalling tactics, no more crying, no more meltdowns.
"It turns out that putting him to bed 30 minutes earlier probably results in about 1 1/2 to two hours more sleep a night because he doesn't fight it," says Mary Alice Mitchell, mother of Grady, who turned 4 in March. "The difference is night and day."
After Grady first went to sleep within minutes under the new routine, his mom and dad asked each other: "Is this really happening?"
To catch Grady before he's too tired to cope, they say they'll practically jump through hoops to start the bedtime routine at 6:30 and get their son to bed at 7 p.m. on the dot. "We had tried all the parenting techniques, but no matter what we did, he would lose it during the bedtime routine," Mary Alice says.
Indeed. Grady's preschool teachers noticed he often complained of tiredness. At circle time, he wanted to sprawl out and put his head down. He was impulsive and easily overstimulated. Now that he gets 12 hours of sleep a night, he more calmly flows through a fun school day and the afternoons at home.
Her son also is more easy-going while getting ready for preschool, Mary Alice says. Grady no longer insists on wearing one style of pants, nor does he flip out if his favorite outfits are in the laundry.
The impact of insufficient sleep on children and adolescents can be highly significant but is often overlooked or misunderstood, sleep experts say.
When a child isn't getting enough rest, it's actually harder for him to relax and fall asleep, and to sleep through the night. Late-night activity fueled by adrenaline gives a child a second wind, and can fool his caregivers into thinking he's just not tired.
Among kids ages 1 to 5, sleep-related behavior is one of the most common problems brought to pediatricians. The Mitchells were so frustrated with their son's bedtime struggles that they turned to a psychologist.
An earlier bedtime is one part of the psychologist's "prescribed" foundation for the boy's improved emotional stability. His parents also strive to assure their son has plenty of physical activity, and give him some focused attention each day where Grady leads their time together. Also, no sugar or caffeine after about 2 p.m.
For some kids, sleep solutions are simple. For example, one mother gave each of her four children a short strand of blue Christmas lights at night to chase away shadows. But many parents, like the Mitchells, have had to work much harder to get their children on track.
Then there's the wake-up call. Before your child can tell time, he can learn to do "everything by numbers," a Virginia mother suggests:
"Bedtime at 9, naps until 3, and don't wake Daddy until there's an 8 on the clock on weekends."
Can you help?
"You recently wrote a column about a 7-year-old boy with poor social skills. I know you cannot diagnose a child in the column, but symptoms his mother described -- impulsive, immature, disruptive -- also fit attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger's syndrome. My daughter wasn't diagnosed with either until she was 9, and I wish someone had steered me in that direction earlier. Please tell parents how to get started earlier if they suspect their child truly is facing a challenge that falls outside the norm."
-- A mother who credits her husband with first recognizing Asperger's as the culprit of their daughter's struggles.
If you have tips or a question, call toll-free (800) 827-1092, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Parent to Parent, P.O. Box 4270, Davidson, N.C. 28036.