How Can I Get My Child to Sleep in His Own Bed?

Filed under: Feeding & Sleeping, Expert Advice: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Expert Advice: Big Kids

Dear AdviceMama,

I am the mother of three children. Our youngest refuses to sleep alone in his own bed. We have tried lying down with him until he falls asleep or letting him lie in our bed until he falls asleep, but as soon as we move or try to move him, he wakes up and the whole process starts all over. I feel like we have tried everything! I'm hoping you have some advice for us.

Sleepy Mom

Dear Sleepy Mom,

This is one of the most common questions I'm asked, and probably because a disrupted sleep affects children (and their parents) so significantly. There's nothing quite as rejuvenating as going to bed peacefully and sleeping undisturbed through the night. A child who either can't fall asleep easily, or who requires parents to stay for extended periods of time is affecting their own sleep, as well as their weary parents'.

Get clear. This situation is made worse by sending mixed messages to your child. Do you lecture him about how he has to sleep in his own room, only to cave in when you're tired, tucking him into your bed as you give up ... "just for tonight"? Do you sometimes scold him for creeping into your bedroom in the middle of the night, and other times sweetly make room for him to join you?

Until and unless you're very clear about what you and your husband want your son to do, he's going to push to get what feels best to him. Remember, children are egocentric. As much as you're little boy loves you, he isn't thinking about how tired you might be as you lie there waiting for him to finally fall asleep; he's focused on what feels best to him.

So don't expect your child to recognize how sleepy you are and tell you to go off to bed. He -- like most children -- prefers your company as he falls asleep. It's normal; humans have been co-sleeping for thousands of years. I'm not telling you to sleep with him, but I am suggesting that you'll need to be crystal clear that the goal is to help him go to sleep in his own bed and stay there before you try the new strategies I will offer you.

If you're certain that you do not want your son to sleep in your room, choose a relaxed time -- not before bedtime -- when you explain the new bedtime plan. Give him the chance to be upset, scared or sad, and help him offload his feelings without trying to convince him of how much he's going to love sleeping alone! He probably isn't, at least at first. So let him express his anger, fear or tears about the fact that you've decided that he cannot sleep in your room anymore.

Proceed in stages. Think of the process as weaning, rather than a cold turkey, all-at-once experience of making him stay in his room. Focus on helping him go to sleep in his own room, rather than moving him after he's fallen asleep in yours (which clearly doesn't work).

Offer distractions. First, give him something interesting to look at or listen to so he doesn't feel bored and alone in the dark. Quiet music, audio books or a projector that shows stars moving across the ceiling can help distract a sleepy child.

Address fears. Charlotte Reznick, author of "The Power of Your Child's Imagination," suggests that if your child is fearful of sleeping in his own bed, engage his imagination for protection. One 9-year-old, initially terrified of break-ins even with a working alarm system, created an enormous white dragon to wrap around her bed and added a tiger at the door (just in case...). It helped her feel safe enough to allow her eyes to close and her body to relax into sleep."

Move across the room. Lie beside your son silently for a while, and then sit across the room from him while you listen to your iPod or read with your itty bitty light without engaging in any conversation. Let him know that, for a while, you're going to stay nearby until he falls asleep, but only to help him get used to being alone. Let him know if he tries to get you to talk, you will go out of the room. (But give him a reminder or two, as this will take some getting used to.)

After a week or so, start leaving for two to three minutes to "go to the bathroom," and be sure to return as promised. This will help him develop greater tolerance for your absence, without causing him to panic.

Usually within a couple of weeks of sticking closely to these guidelines, the parents I have worked with find that their children adjust to sleeping alone. Give it a try, and let me know how it works! And sweet dreams!

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.