My son climbing up a slideSo you know that thing you do when you’re desperate for your kid to sleep? That thing where you take your child to the park, run them into the ground, and force them to stay up a bit later than usual? Then when nearing complete destruction or implosion, you keep the windows down in the car and the music blaring so they won’t fall asleep on the way home? All this in the hopes that when you are home, they CRASH. CRASH HARD and sleep like a zombie. Instinct tells you that the physical fatigue they acquire will allow them to pound out an outrageous nap.

We do this. Most of us, at least. We think that the way we sleep is the same as the way our kids sleep. And after learning by experience that a hard day of weeding, running, or traveling increases our ability to crash asleep, we trust that tiring out our kids will get them to nap extra-hard, extra-soundly and extra-long.

Brutal reality: it may not.

One rare example where our instincts may not serve us well. Especially if your child isn’t a pro sleeper to begin with. Children have different sleep needs (duh) and different sleep patterns than adults.

I met with Dr. Maida Chen this past week. She’s a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep specialist. She’s the bomb — a mom, a lung doctor, a sleep doctor, a wife to a radiologist (see why I like her?) and a practical clinician. She knows a ton about understanding sleep and how and why kids sleep. And why they don’t.

I was talking with her about naps. Naptime is often one of the best times of day for a normal parent (please say you are one). This is not because you don’t love your child, but rather, you still love parts of yourself, too. And there is something utterly delicious about the quiet and stillness in a home when you know your baby is resting peacefully. And you’re off the hook for a spell.

I’m sure you wonder where you are and where you’ve gone off to in all of the personal clutter of raising your child. Naptime can be a moment to regain that sense of self. It’s one of those hours (or two, if you’re lucky) that you get to be productive in life, but quietly and without interruption. Even if just to pay the phone bill. More, when it’s for something self-preserving like writing, calling a friend, reading, or resting your body. Or for you over-achievers out there, exercising.

There are days when I am utterly desperate for naptime.

Dr. Chen makes a warning while she taught me about this instinct to run our kids into the ground. She uses both rationale and science for this. It starts with understanding what doctors call sleep architecture. It’s the visual representation of the states of sleep: the rising and falling of our activity level, eye movements and brainwaves while we move between the stages of sleep during the night, in and out of REM sleep. Think of it as a beautiful skyline (click the architecture link to see). Sleep specialists study this architecture to evaluate if we are sleeping properly and getting “good” quality sleep in overnight sleep studies. The goal each and every night is to get the right amount and the right kind of sleep that refreshes, restores and leaves us ready for the next day.

She mentioned delta wave sleep. It’s the kind of sleep that is nearly corpse-like. It’s that really deep sleep where you don’t move a muscle. Real deal rest. Think of when your child falls asleep in the car and you can carry them up and into their bed without even awakening them. Delta wave sleep is that out-to-the-world sleep.

Not surprisingly, this delta wave or slow wave sleep varies depending on age. Toddlers have more of it than school age kids and than adolescents and adults. In most children (and adults) this type of deep sleep happens mostly early on in the night. However, studies have found that after athletes complete a marathon, for example, they have more delta wave sleep and even a rebound or extra delta wave sleep. Theoretically, because they are so stinking tired.

Toddlers, if they are well-rested kids in general, will have an increase in delta after a long day of hard work or near-marathoning. But only, Dr. Chen says, “if they are not chronically sleep deprived, already very tired, and have a normal sleep architecture to start with.”

“Many parents make the mistake of trying to run their kids into the ground to improve sleep,” she notes, “and it may do just the opposite.” Acute activity, like a long hike on a sunny day really may help increase delta wave sleep. But Dr. Chen reminds, “Only in kids who are well-rested prior to the activity. In kids who are chronically sleep deprived, or already very tired, increasing physical activity will only rev these kids up more! And it will only reinforce their inability to fall asleep.”

I translate that as: running your kid into the ground may make your kid more CRAZY. You know, that tired-crazy-lunatic-like activity your toddler or preschooler (or spouse?) can have when exhausted…

So, if you’re having a bad stretch of sleep and you have a wild-child on your hands, don’t drive off to the playground for 4½ hours of a run-into-the-ground decathlon. Let them chill out at home, ready them for nap with a book and keep your nap and bedtime schedule consistent. Your avoiding that park decathlon may buy you and your child a very nice nap. And you may get back on the road to more consistent sleep in your home. You’ll also be able to say, “Welcome home, me. So nice to see you again,” as you put your feet up to eat those bon-bons.