Video: Help for sleep-deprived parents

By Rehema Ellis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/14/2004 7:43:03 PM ET 2004-12-15T00:43:03

Looking at the Peters family today, it's hard to image that with their only child, 19-month-old Melinda, they struggled through 17 months of sleepless nights.

“We were in a bad state and getting worse,” remembers Philip Peters.

They tried everything — holding, rocking, repeated nighttime breast feedings — but with little success.

“A good, good stretch would be an hour and a half maybe," says Dawn Peters. “We were lucky if we got that.”

Sleep experts now say what the Peters were doing was making Melinda more dependent on them — setting up sleep crutches.

They're not alone. Sleep problems now affect more than half of American families with young children.

“I would say we are at the tip of the iceberg, which is, we are just starting to recognize that there's sleep problems in children,” says Dr. Jodi Mindell of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

A recent poll of 1,500 families by the National Sleep Foundation found 62 percent of infants and toddlers had sleep problems at least a few nights a week and 76 percent of parents wanted to change something about their child's sleep patterns.

Enter the 'Sleep Lady'
At their wits' end, Dawn and Philip Peters found an answer — sleep consultant Kim West.

“I have probably worked with a thousand families all over the country,” says West.

West is known as the “Sleep Lady.”  She’s a clinical social worker who helps families teach their children, aged six-months to five-years-old, how to go to sleep and stay asleep without hours of crying.

“We often don't allow our child the opportunity to learn how to put themselves to sleep — and we're quick to rescue them and do it for them,” says West.

She says every family is different and a doctor should be consulted first to rule out any medical problems.

What worked for the Peters was a routine: establishing a bedtime, bathing, storytelling and having a parent in the room — but not holding Melinda — while she falls asleep.

There is no magic solution and experts say in the beginning there can still be a lot of crying. But the key is patience in setting a routine and sticking with it.

The Peters say the routine changed their lives and Melinda has gone from being clingy to outgoing.

“This all started when she started getting enough sleep,” says Philip Peters. “She just seemed to get smarter overnight.”

And Melinda getting a good night's rest has made a difference for the whole family.

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