How it all starts
It usually begins innocently enough; your child isn’t feeling well and wants to sleep in your bed. One night turns into two, then three… Or your infant child has colic and is difficult to soothe and you find yourself often falling asleep with your child, year after year. In either case, as well as countless other potential scenarios, the end result is the same; your child is consistently sleeping in your bed and won’t sleep alone in her own bed.
What’s the big deal?
Interestingly, some parents don’t seem to mind, and there is even a movement by some groups to suggest that this is a healthy arrangement. If you’re in that group, I guess you can stop reading. Otherwise, if you’re a parent who actually wants to be alone with their spouse, is tired of constantly being kicked in the stomach during sleep by their forever-moving child, or is somehow aware that a healthy child is able to sleep comfortably alone in her own bed, then definitely keep reading.
Is it best for my child to sleep alone?
Yes, it is. The process of falling asleep is rather complex and particular skills are involved. For example, a child needs to be able to clear their mind, turn off their thoughts, calm themselves, and allow themself to comfortably drift away into la-la land. This is no easy task, especially for kids who find themselves, at bedtime, away from everyone and alone in a dark room. The process of self-soothing is a learned skill, and is also subsequently used during the day to calm when in a stressful situation. It’s a skill that definitely comes-in handy. In fact, countless times I’ve seen kiddo’s appear more mature, relaxed, and confident after they learn how to fall asleep alone at night. Not to mention parents appearing a lot happier.
What to do?
If you find yourself consistently sleeping next to a very small person who, nightly, finds their way into your room, you’ve probably tried the common strategy of taking the child back to their bed only to find the child back in your bed when you awaken in the morning. Or maybe you’ve attempted to reason with your child, or use sticker charts, and other rewards. If you remain consistent, these are all commendable approaches, and it can also be quite effective to use these commonly applied approaches:
1. Talk to the child during the day, pleasantly explaining the expectations and rewards for sleeping on their own.
2. Keep a consistent bedtime routine.
3. Answer any fears the child may have.
4. Comfort your child at bedtime while sitting beside the bed as they begin to relax and fall asleep.
However, it’s vital you do not fall asleep with the child, or have the child fall asleep while you’re beside the bed (the goal is for the child to fall asleep alone). Yes, your child may fuss, cry, and call-out for you, but it’s vital you allow your child to learn that ‘everything is okay’ and he or she can fall asleep on their own. The first few nights may be tough, but hang in there.
Okay, I hear your big question: what if my child simply will not remain in her bed, tantrums, and won’t stay in her room? What then? Okay, here’s the hard part; you have two choices. 1.) keep-up with the slow but progressive approach of walking your child back to their bed, getting them comfortable, and then leaving. You may make that trip many times, but consistency is the key. Do not verbally engage, and remain with your child for as little time as possible (the less attention, the better). Of course, that approach is quite taxing, especially after you’ve worn a path in the carpet between her room and yours.
What else can I do?
Well, this next tip can be tough for many parents, but it’s also quite effective and faster as a remedy to this problem. Here’s what you do: you tell your child the expectations for bedtime and offer all the aforementioned reassurances. Explain that you’ll be leaving their door open, and yours, so that she can feel comfortable at bedtime. You’ll explain, however, that if she won’t remain in her room, that you’ll close her door. If she still won’t remain in her room, you’ll explain that you’ll be securing the door from the outside or in some way confining in their room (by using a gate, or ¾-door…). Of course, you won’t confine your child until you’re sure that the room is safe, and that she won’t tantrum in a manner that will cause her harm. You may even drill a peep-hole in the door so you can always see what’s going on in there. However, ultimately, if necessary, you’ll close and secure the door or use some type of gate that keeps your child in the room. Of course, she’ll tantrum, cajole, complain, threaten, and may even kick the door. However, you’ll stand firm and you will not provide any verbal feedback (you want her to think you’ve fallen asleep and can’t even hear her). What will happen next? Your child may tantrum for an hour or so the first night, but you’ll see the tantrums reduce appreciably the next night. In fact, most kids don’t tantrum after the first night; they’re not stupid and don’t want to be confined in their room. However, I want to emphasize again that safety is the key; it’s vital to ensure the room is safe and that your child will not become self-injurious when tantrumming. I usually advise starting with the first approach (walking the child back to their room…) before moving to confining your child, and I imagine your kiddo will appreciate that latitude. Also, if your child is prone to violent tantrums and extreme emotional reactions, it’s best to contact me to discuss, at email@example.com or call me at one of the offices, before moving forward with the approach of securing your child in their room. However, in the vast majority of cases, with typical kids, it works out just fine.
The three ticket strategy
On a different but related note, if you have a child who gets in bed but then pesters for everything under the sun including a drink, a hug, to go to the bathroom or to get something to eat, or any number of other things to keep you around and to keep from going to sleep, here’s a strategy you may find helpful. Of course, you can simply ignore these requests, or you can give your child 2 or 3 “tickets” that can be traded for something they want. However, after getting the drink, for example, they give-up a ticket. After 2 or 3 times, they have no tickets left and no more requests are indulged. I’ve found, and research results support this observation, that many kids will ultimately use none of the tickets and simply go to sleep. They find that having the tickets is comforting and knowing they can use them, if necessary, is enough for them.
That’s about it
Okay, that sums it up. You have two choices to get your child to sleep alone, both of which can be effective: the more traditional but longer approach, or the quicker albeit more stressful strategy (in that regard, it can be stressful to consider securing your child in their room). It’s advised to start with the first, and then think carefully before trying the second. Remember, safety is the key. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any thoughts or questions about this common problem, and these strategies.
John Carosso, Child Psychologist