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A reporter set out on a quest to solve her family’s sleep crisis. Here’s what she found

By Chloe Melas, CNN

I’m really tired.

No, seriously. I don’t think I’ve slept through the night in four years.

What could be causing my sleep issues, you ask?

I’m the mom of two young boys, ages 2 and 4, and they haven’t ever slept through the night except for a few months when they were infants.

This is causing extreme sleep deprivation for my husband and me.

The lack of sleep is affecting every aspect of my life — including my mood, weight and marriage. My ability to operate on all cylinders is not possible without copious amounts of caffeine.

It’s for all these reasons that I set out on a quest with CNN Wellness eight weeks ago to get my family more sleep.

Sleep challenges are common in families

Before I set out on my journey, it was good to learn that what’s happening to my family is very common.

An estimated 25% to 50% of preschool children do not sleep enough, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Young children not falling asleep or staying asleep results in less sleep for their parents or caregivers. It can also lead to behavioral problems at school and hyperactivity and has been linked to childhood obesity.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that children ages 3 to 5 years old sleep 10 to 13 hours per day. Children ages 6 to 13 years old need nine to 11 hours of sleep per night.

And it when it comes to adults, you should be aiming for seven to nine hours.

I am definitely not getting that amount of sleep — not even close.

If I’m lucky, my husband and I sleep for three hours before one of our children wakes up and wanders into our bedroom. Then we sleep off and on until 5 a.m., when both children are up like roosters.

I took my family’s sad sleep experience to sleep guru Dr. Marc Weissbluth, professor emeritus of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Over the past two months, I met with him virtually three times.

Go easy on yourself

During our first interview, I was emotional about the sleep crisis in my household, but Weissbluth said not to blame myself.

“Maybe you were just unlucky,” he said. “Maybe you innocently did things that allowed bad habits to develop, and we don’t want to beat ourselves up for what we did in the past. But going forward, we can always help children sleep better.”

Heard these excuses? Teething, growth spurts, sleep regressions, and/or being born a night owl. Weissbluth said to throw out every explanation I had ever been given about sleep issues in children.

That includes the “witching hour,” that time toward the end of the day when children get cranky that parents often blame on a long day. The witching hour exists because our kids are sleep deprived, Weissbluth said. “It could be only perhaps because they have fragmented night sleep,” he said. “If you have interrupted sleep, then you don’t wake up as well rested, and your body is not as restored and so in the afternoon you lose it.”

Institute earlier bedtime for kids

Kids need to get to sleep earlier and get more sleep. “If you look at surveys of bedtimes when children fall asleep over decades, not three years, but 10, 20, 30 years, it’s gotten later and later so that children are having more difficulty falling asleep in part because their bedtime is too late,” Weissbuth said.

All of our organs require oxygen glucose energy, but only one organ requires sleep, he said and that’s the brain. “So if the brain doesn’t get the food it needs it is going to have consequences, either in behavior or emotions or cognition.”

Over the last four years, I feel like I’ve tried ready-to-wake clocks, red night-lights and melatonin, and even pushed back my children’s bedtime in hopes of making them more tired.

What was our sleep guru’s plan for our family?

Simple sleep rules for little ones

Weissbluth, who authored the popular book “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child,” said that for my 4-year-old it would be to follow his “sleep rules.” Honestly, that sounded too simple to actually work — get in bed, close your eyes, be quiet, and try to sleep.

If my 4-year-old were to follow the rules, he would be rewarded the following morning with a piece of candy or a small toy. If he did wake up during the night, we were to do a silent return to bed that would involve hugs and affection but no words. (We didn’t want to encourage him to want to hang out with Mom and Dad.) That also meant restricting his privileges the following day, taking away or limiting something he enjoyed (a toy, his iPad, a certain snack) as a result of waking up.

At first, I was hesitant to take part in a reward system, but I was desperate to try anything. My son and I made a sign of the sleep rules and taped it to his bedroom door. We also moved his bedtime up by half an hour.

To my surprise, it worked!

Minus a few hiccups here and there, he has slept through the night without coming into our bedroom 95% of the time in the last two months.


Structure and routine help

“Sleep rules work because they encourage behaviors compatible with sleep and discourage behaviors that interfere with sleep,” Weissbluth told me. “Commonly, when implementing sleep rules, the bedtime is moved a little earlier, so the child is at a lower state of neurological arousal. Sleep rules may not work if the bedtime is way too late.”

For our 2-year-old, our main issue was that he was body rocking, a self-soothing mechanism which involved him banging his head against his crib until he fell asleep. Weissbluth assured us that this was nothing to be too concerned about and also encouraged us to create more of a structure around his nighttime routine and move his bedtime up by half an hour.

We so commonly just placed him in his crib and turned on his sound machine because he wouldn’t sit still to read a book when he was 1 year old. But as it turns out, he’s enjoying turning on his sound machine and turning off his light after a few books with Daddy.

Our younger son is still waking up at 5 a.m., but at least he’s sleeping through the night with little to no body rocking.


Better rest, one night at a time

Still, this isn’t a foolproof plan.

“There will always be exceptions because of natural life events that involve you and your children,” Weissbluth said. “It might be a common cold, might be a school-related event for your 4-year-old that will be disrupted. But these disruptions will be occasional, somewhat predictable. … It’s more of a speed bump or a nuisance than a big roadblock to being well-rested.”

Are all our sleep problems solved? Not quite. But we are feeling more rested and hopeful that longer stretches of sleep are on the horizon!

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