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Published July 29, 2013, 10:00 PM

Sleepless kids, stress parents: Moms, dads also struggle when children’s rest is disrupted

FARGO -- Cari Luchau and her husband, Lance, sometimes have to take turns sleeping.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

FARGO -- Cari Luchau and her husband, Lance, sometimes have to take turns sleeping.

Even then, neither of them really sleeps soundly.

Their son, Leighton, often gets up two or three times throughout the night.

But they’re not new parents with an infant who has his days and nights mixed up. They’re parents to a 3-year-old who refuses to sleep through the night no matter how many sleep methods they try.

The Luchaus have been struggling with sleep issues since Leighton was an infant.

Parents know to expect sleepless nights with an infant, but when their older children won’t sleep, it can be exhaustingly difficult for all involved.

Dr. Rebecca Bakke, a Sanford Health pediatrician, says sleep problems are extremely common, and parents will notice more problems around certain areas of development.

Around 2 or 3 years of age, children often become more rebellious and don’t want to go to bed because they don’t want to miss out on anything, she said.

Around 3 or 4, they might start to become scared of monsters, the dark or nightmares, she said.

“Sleep begets sleep,” Bakke said. “Sometimes when kids are overtired, they get a second wind and their sleep is even more disrupted.”

Lack of sleep can be problematic for both parents and children.

When kids are overtired, it’s even more of a struggle for parents because of behavioral problems. If they aren’t sleeping regularly at school-age, it can affect their academic performance. It can also affect their growth and development, and there is some association between sleep problems and obesity, Bakke said.

Parents who are tired might not be able to focus, become short-tempered, overeat, or they could fall asleep under dangerous circumstances, such as while driving, said Dr. Janet Tillisch, an Essentia Health Pediatrician.

Tillisch said some children need less sleep than others, but if kids are having trouble getting up in the morning, they’re not getting enough sleep.

Luchau worries that her son’s sleep patterns could affect his development, but he’s an active, happy boy who seems to be doing just fine, she said.

For Luchau, the sleepless nights are taking a toll, she said.

“I find myself getting frustrated very easily,” Luchau said. “Everything’s mentally harder. It’s harder to stay focused. It’s easier to not eat healthy and skip exercising because you’re so tired.”

There are days when she’s so exhausted she’ll count down the hours until bedtime.

Most kids have occasional bumps in their sleep habits, but if a disruption is lasting a while and interfering with family health, Bakke recommends talking to the child’s pediatrician about it or bringing it up at a wellness check.

“When no one is sleeping, that’s bad for the entire family,” Bakke said. “Sleep problems are normal, but don’t let it rule your life.”

Preschoolers need an average of 12 hours of sleep in a day. School-aged kids need nine to 11 hours, but just like adults, some need more and some need less, she said.

Regardless of the age, the first step to improving sleep patterns is to start with good sleep hygiene, Bakke said. That means giving kids a very predictable bedtime routine, being very consistent with their bed and wakeup times, and not allowing electronics the last half-hour or hour before bed, she said.

Tillisch says she encourages parents to solve the problem by the time their babies are 6 months old or so.

“It’s much harder to handle if you wait until the toddler age,” she said. “I like to correct the problem before they can climb out of the crib.”

She recommends only rocking babies until they are drowsy and then putting them in their crib. That way they learn to fall asleep by themselves, and if they wake up in the middle of the night, they know how to go back to sleep without a parent.

If they don’t go back to sleep on their own, Tillisch, who has been a pediatrician since 1979, says to let them cry.

“That first night they can easily cry two or three hours,” Tillisch said, cautioning that once parents pick the baby up, they’re starting the process all over again.

Parents should go into the child’s room every 15 to 20 minutes, but don’t pick him up, change his diaper or engage him in any way. Just pat his back and walk out.

“If you’re committed and stick to it, I can almost guarantee by the fourth or fifth night the baby will be sleeping. Each night he should cry less.”

Some parents worry that letting their child cry will traumatize them, but Tillisch said there’s no proof that happens, and this sleep method is different than just leaving a child to cry because the parent is still going into the room.

Parents should make an exception if the child is sick or teething, Tillisch said.

“You don’t want to let those kids cry,” she said. “Make sure they’re healthy.”

Another method that has become more mainstream and may work better for toddlers is to stay in the child’s room until he falls asleep, but move closer to the door every day until you finally end up in the hallway, Tillisch said.

If a child is climbing out of his crib, it’s a much harder problem to take care of, Tillisch said. If that’s the case, keep putting him back to bed.

If the child climbs into his parent’s bed and parents want to break that habit, Tillisch suggests keeping a sleeping bag near the bed and letting the child sleep there. Each day move the sleeping bag closer and closer to the child’s room.

When children get a little older, around 3 or 4, parents can reward them with things like stickers for staying in bed, she said.

Luchau said she’s read about how important sleep is and believes wholeheartedly that it’s true. But she also tries to keep her son’s sleep issues in perspective and says if getting up throughout the night is the worst thing they have to deal with because their son is otherwise healthy, they feel very fortunate.

“We keep telling ourselves, ‘This too shall pass’,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526