Q: Our kindergarten-age daughter has nightmares. When she wakes up from one, it's so disruptive that we let her stay in our bedroom. Her teacher reports that she dozes in class. (There are no naps.) We try to schedule eight hours of sleep, but she's hard to settle at bedtime. Will she outgrow this pattern?
A: A change in routine, such as going to full-day kindergarten, can cause sleep disruptions. Most kids don't simply grow out of poor sleep patterns, so be proactive.
"Sleep problems are rarely (with few exceptions) part of a normal phase that must be waited out," says Dr. Richard Ferber, author of "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems" (Fireside, 2006).
First, recognize that healthy sleep has a big impact on school performance. Studies show that sleep-deprived kids have trouble with focus and memory and may be more aggressive and prone to obesity. Think about sleep this way, suggests Dr. Marc Weissbluth, author of "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child" (Ballantine, 2005).
"Sleep is the power source that keeps your mind alert and calm," he says. "Every night and at every nap, sleep recharges the brain's battery."
Second, establish a longer sleep schedule and stick with it seven nights a week. The National Sleep Foundation (sleepfoundation.org) suggests that 5- to 12-year-old children need 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night to function well at school.
Third, prepare your daughter for quality sleep. Limit caffeine and chocolate before bed. Make sure the bedroom is comfy, peaceful and the right temperature. Remove distractions, such as TV. Wind down with a bedtime story.
Fourth, tackle nightmares head on.
"These fears are very real to a child," says Sharon Cramer, author of "Marlow and the Monster" (B&F Publishing, 2012), a tale that helps kids cope with imaginary creatures.
Cramer's suggestions for curtailing nightmares include: eliminating violent books, movies and cartoons; putting the mattress on the floor if your daughter is afraid of what's under the bed; keeping a soft light on and having a lit path to the bathroom; and making sure your daughter is surrounded by her favorite stuffed animals. Tack a sign on the door that says "Only Nice Monsters Allowed," and enjoy stories that debunk traditional monster fears, like "James and the Giant Peach."
"My granddaughter and I watched 'Monsters, Inc.' several times until she reframed in her mind what a monster is: a cuddly creature that protects little girls," says Cramer.
Fifth, try not to invite your daughter to your bed, advises Cramer.
"Stay with her in her bedroom until she's comforted and back to sleep," she says. "Letting her retreat to your room sets a bad routine that is hard to break and only reinforces that her own bedroom is to be feared. Next morning, tell her about what scared you as a child and how you learned it was your imagination and not real."
Teachers surveyed by University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham say that if they could magically make parents do one thing to help children succeed academically, it would be to make sure they come to school having had a good night's sleep.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)