By Donna Kane, MA
It’s 11 o’clock at night. You are exhausted, your spouse is exhausted and your son is up and out of bed for the third time pleading with you to let him sleep in your bed…again. Your spouse sends you a look, telepathically saying “no, not again.” You do not have the strength to fight the fight. Another night with three of you in the bed.
I understand. You may be familiar with the saying that you are only as happy as your least happy child. The same goes for sleep. You are only as rested as your least restful child. As a school consultant for JCS, I have the privilege of working with children from preschool through elementary school. The first few weeks of school can be a case study in Separation Anxiety- both child and parent – and this is completely understandable. November rolls around and I start to get calls from worried, exhausted, and even angry parents. Usually the concern is that the school is not meeting their child’s needs or the teacher is “not a good fit” and very rarely that is the case. More often parents have these concerns because their child is crying, clinging, and refusing to get out of the car, go into the classroom, and/or let their parent leave the classroom. So we talk. I ask about your morning routine, if there is a new baby, any big changes like a move, and then I ask about bedtime. You know where this going already, don’t you? Just the mention of bedtime ratchets up your stress level. Honestly, I do understand the thinking behind picking your battles and taking the path of least resistance- you are TIRED! Trouble is, your child is now sleeping in your bed regularly, you are still tired and nothing really has changed.
I gently suggest that it might be better for everyone if your child slept in his own bed. Parents will give me a look of complete resignation or skepticism but I press on because I know that this is an achievable goal and an important milestone. Your child will gain confidence by spending the night in his own bed. He learns that his parents are nearby and will keep him safe even when they are not in the same room. Your child learns to separate. Once that is achieved it is not as difficult for a child to transfer that skill to mastering the morning drop off at school.
Great in theory, but how do you put this into practice? If your child has been sleeping in your bed every night for an extended period of time (which might seem as little as one week to your preschooler), start the separation gradually. Place a sleeping bag or air mattress on the floor next to your bed and gradually move them into their own bed.
Be consistent. This is hard to do at 3 a.m. when you have to get up at 5:30 but be firm every night. Sleep experts are quick to remind parents that getting your child to stay in his or her own bed is a long term goal. Tell your child you know it’s not easy, but you know he can do it.
Use incentives. I suggest parents make a chart and hang it in the bedroom. Give your child a token for each night he stays in his room and then give him a prize once he has attained a certain amount of tokens. Up the ante periodically. Also, I suggest parents may want to think about having children return the prize when they earn the next one. Parents can even recycle the prizes by using them for another child or having their son donate them to a toy drive, which has the bonus of teaching the concept of giving back and not just “getting.”
Introduce a Clock. Dana Obleman the author of The Sleep Sense Program suggests putting duct tape over the minute digits of a digital clock then review the numbers that your child will see each evening in the hour position. Obleman suggests saying, “In our house, no one gets up before 7. If it’s not showing a 7, go back to sleep.” I would suggest that you teach your child how to fall back to sleep. Give them something relaxing to think about. Have them close their eyes and practice with you. The suggestion can be as simple as think about our vacation at the beach. Think about how the water felt. Remember how the air smelled and how blue the sky was. Teach your child how to relax.
Don’t cave. Children will get sick, have genuine fears, experience loss and you can comfort them and support them without having them spend the night in your bed. You can sit with them in their room, give them a flashlight or nightlight, or play music for them.
You really are giving your children a gift by helping them to learn to sleep in their own space and get through the night without assistance from you. Even parents who believe in a “family bed” will, at some point, have to help their children learn to sleep independently. Getting a good night’s sleep and taking care of yourself is a valuable lesson to model for your children. It can make so many other problems seem much smaller in the light of day.
If bedtime difficulties persist despite consistent and loving interventions or if you feel anxious about your child sleeping in his own bed, JCS is here to help.
By Donna Kane, MA, JCS Intake Clinician
Because parenting doesn’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.