In sleep wars, it’s parents vs. kids

    Putting a 3-year-old to bed can be a nightmare. Tears, manipulation and frazzled nerves.

    WHYY/Newsworks visited with a South Philly family that fights the good fight every night.

    At the Huxen home, bedtime is a topsy-turvy hour when suddenly the demands and charms of a preschooler rule the entire house. Kiva is three.

    “She is a delightful, bright, wonderful, affectionate, willful, stubborn, whiny, joy,” said Beth Goldstein Huxen.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Huxen is a math teacher. She knows about child development and the stages kids go through and says Kiva’s stall tactics are normal.

    “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I have to use the potty, those are sort of get out of jail free cards,” Goldstein Huxen said.

    By 9 o’clock Beth and husband Ray Huxen are worn out. Kiva may be a wreck, in the morning, but for now, she’s wide awake.

    “She says: ‘I’m busy, I’m busy now,’ and she is. Everything is interesting and everything is fabulous,” said Goldstein Huxen.

    Beth cajoles, then threatens and finally reminds.

    Beth: What does trying to go to sleep mean?

    Kiva: No moving.

    Beth: And no singing.

    Kiva: And no talking.

    Beth: And no talking.

    Kiva: I’m going to try to.

    Beth: All right.

    The parenting books say: set a routine and stick to it. The Huxens do have a routine. Two TV programs after dinner. After that, a bath. Three books and lights out. Most nights, though, the plan falls apart.

    “Kiva, is that how we sleep? Do you want me to get the bread for you? All right, then lie down. Lie down, Kiva. You have to try to go to sleep while I’m gone,” Goldstein Huxen negotiates with Kiva often during the hour it takes to put the three-year-old to bed.

    Friends tell Beth: Close the door. Let Kiva cry. But Ray Huxen says their “delightful and willful” three-year-old can quickly dissolve into hysterical and out-of-control.

    “And if she melts you kind of go back all the way to the beginning. So you’re really rollin’ the dice. So you have to calm her down, settle her down again. You got to get a feel for where she is with it, and try not to guess wrong,” Huxen said.

    Dr. Jodi Mindell is a psychologist at Saint Joseph’s University and wrote the book “Sleeping Through the Night.” She says letting kids learn to self soothe is hard.

    “We don’t want a child just in a room crying all alone. That’s not going to be effective. We want parents coming back and being very reassuring to the child.

    “‘It’s OK, it’s night, night time. I love you. I’ll see you in the morning,'” Mindell said.

    There will be tears. The first night is bad, the second night is worse, but the third night, Mindell says, is usually dramatically better.

    “I hear all the time: ‘He’s going to cry for three hours.’ They don’t, they really don’t,” she said.

    Mindell says it is possible to train kids and parents for a good night’s sleep.

    One of her best tips is: Make sure your bedtime routine goes all in one direction.

    “So you don’t want a family where they go up for a bath, come back downstairs for a snack, go to the living room for television, parents room for a story, then the kids room. Every one of those transitions is hard,” she said.

    Keep to the schedule even on the weekend and try bedtime without electronics.

    “So if you’re watching a television show, it’s really tempting to keep watching that television show, or it’s really tempting to do one more text message. So we really want kids turning that off and having at least a half hour before lights out,” she said.

    Scientists don’t really know what sleep does, but not getting enough affects mood, and over time, Mindell says that deprivation may be bad for children’s health. She says, it’s worth it to figure out how to sleep well.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal