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Kids and Sleeping Problems

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

QUESTION:

What should a parent do if a school-age child can't seem to go to sleep before midnight, even though he needs more sleep and his attentiveness in class suffers? My 11-year-old son goes to bed by 10:00 p.m. on school nights, but lies awake for hours.

ANSWER:
This is not an unusual concern for parents of children this age, but it certainly can be frustrating. You didn't say if your son is concerned about lying awake at night or if he recognizes the impact it's having on his school behavior. But, whatever his feelings, it will be important to avoid a power struggle and to make sure that you and he are on the same team.

A first step is to sit down together to identify the problem (e.g. he's worried about something and can't sleep; or he's just not sleepy until later at night; or he's pushing to be a grown-up with later hours). Then brainstorm together some possible solutions. Depending on how you identify the problem, here are some ideas that may be helpful:

If your son is stressed about something, gently encourage him to talk about it. Unspoken worries are the ones that most often keep us awake.

When sleep won't come, lying there and worrying about not sleeping can only make matters worse. Instead, help your son see this as a time to do something he enjoys, listening to favorite music or reading a good book.

Encourage your son to discharge some of his tension and energy through after school activities. But avoid vigorous exercises or highly stimulating activities later in the evening, since that can interfere with sleep.

Engage your son in establishing evening routines that are conducive to sleep. For example, you might decide that the hour before bedtime is quiet time with no visitors, phone calls, or lively activities. Sit down together for a comforting snack of cereal, yogurt, or toast and cocoa. This could be a good time for a game of cards or a jigsaw puzzle.

Sleep experts say that it is best to maintain a consistent pattern of bedtimes and rising times even through the weekend. (Easier said than done for many of us - and especially for adolescents - but I thought I should at least pass that advice along!)
There's a good chance this problem will pass on its own, almost regardless of what you do. But if, after trying these suggestions for a few weeks, the sleep problem continues to be a concern for you, your son, or his teachers, I encourage you to consult your pediatrician to be sure there's not a physical or psychological issue that needs professional attention.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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