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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Today in "Your Health," shaping good habits for children and parents. We look at how you could influence what a child likes to eat. But first, the importance of a healthy dose of sleep for Mom and Dad. Researchers say the birth of a new child can change sleep patterns so much, there's a risk of long-term insomnia. Sarah Varney, of member station KQED, reports.

SARAH VARNEY: Meet my best friend, Nicolette Zarday.�

Ms. NICOLETTE ZARDAY (Veterinarian): Can you leap like a dolphin?

GABRIELLA: Do we have a dolphin?

VARNEY: Mother to Gabriella, age 2 and a half, and Laszlo, 9 months. She's an accomplished veterinarian who once operated on a python at the Bronx Zoo. She's no pushover.

Ms. ZARDAY: OK. You ready to go to sleep?

GABRIELLA: Yeah.

VARNEY: With Gabriella tucked in, Nicolette sits down to share her woes.�

Ms. ZARDAY: I can usually fall asleep at night when I go to bed. That's not a problem. But then I do wake up.

VARNEY: She and her husband, Geoff Dolan, live in San Francisco's windy Bernal Heights neighborhood. Over the last few months, the kids especially her son have been sleeping more soundly. But after years of interrupted sleep, Nicolette often wakes up in the middle of the night, even when she doesn't need to.�

Ms. ZARDAY: Then if I wake up for whatever reason - not because he's making noise; I just wake up for some reason - then I'm kind of waiting, you know. Did I actually wake up because he made a noise? And then I'm waiting for the next noise.

VARNEY: There are the remedies parents whisper to each other on the playground - a spare bottle of Ambien, Tylenol PM, brandy. But for those looking for an unmedicated solution, there's no one better than Dr. Rafael Pelayo at Stanford University's Sleep Medicine Center.

Dr. RAFAEL PELAYO (Stanford University): Once you're worried or scared that you can't get back to sleep, then you've developed a pattern of chronic insomnia. And that usually is defined as having it for at least three months. If you want to give it a number, three months of poor sleep puts you into the category of chronic insomnia.

VARNEY: Dr. Pelayo says parents often think poor sleep is their cross to bear. But bad sleep, night after night, especially for mothers, can lead to a permanent sleep disorder, even changing your brain chemistry. For example, Pelayo says, insomniacs have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Dr. PELAYO: Normally, cortisol levels rise for most people in the morning hours, but people with insomnia have elevated cortisol levels at night. They're in a hyper-vigilant state.

VARNEY: Sleep experts say most adults need between seven and nine hours of snoozing each night. Insufficient sleep is linked to car accidents, work injuries, even heart disease and depression. That was not good news to my friend Nicolette, who sat down to talk with Dr. Pelayo about her own tortured nights.

Dr. PELAYO: Now that your children are sleeping more predictably, what do we do about your sleep? A lot of people fall into common pitfalls. And one of them is that they pick their bedtime based on what's happening around them, which kind of makes sense.

VARNEY: Instead, says Pelayo, parents should set the time they want to wake up and then count backward. If you want to wake up every day at 6:30, go to bed around 10:30 p.m. If your mind is racing and you're having trouble falling asleep at bedtime, Pelayo suggests sitting down with a notebook not a computer and writing down your to-do list or whatever's in the back of your mind.

Dr. PELAYO: After you've done that for maybe 15, 20 minutes, close it, put it aside - and you don't have to show it to anybody. But tell yourself, I am done with my day. Say it and believe it. Basically, you're tucking yourself in. You're giving your day closure.�

VARNEY: Above all, though, Pelayo says be consistent.

Dr. PELAYO: We usually want you to lock in your wake-up time on weekends same as weekdays, which is painful because people think about sleeping in.

Ms. ZARDAY: Painful.

Dr. PELAYO: I know.

VARNEY: Pelayo says if you do wake up in the middle of the night, resist the temptation to be productive. Instead of folding laundry, sending emails or paying bills, read the refrigerator warranty. Do something that has absolutely no value.

For parents struggling with sleep problems, Pelayo says it can take about two months to sort everything out.

It had been just a few weeks since Nicolette's own visit to see him. She told me she tried a few of his suggestions. She thought the journal writing was helping to put her mind at ease, and she was attempting to wake up at a more consistent time each day - well, sort of. On non-work days, she and her husband are still taking turns sleeping in.

Ms. ZARDAY: I'll sleep in 'til 9, and that is like, oh my God. Like, that's my greatest pleasure in life right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

VARNEY: For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney.

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