You feel a little nudge in the middle of the night and, the next thing you know, your child is climbing into bed with you. What do you do? Should you scoot over and go back to sleep? Take your child back to his own bed? Sit up for a midnight chat?
It’s an issue in many homes with school-age children. But, how do you get kids to sleep alone?
“When I work for families that have this issue, I ask them to clarify what their goals and priorities are,” says metro Detroit nanny Tara Lindsay. “A good night’s sleep for everyone? A child who stays in his own bed? A child who feels free to come for comfort in the middle of the night?”
Roots of the problem
“A child seeks parents when he wants to escape fears,” adds Victor Gardner, a Henry Ford Health System child psychologist. “This often occurs at night.” Fears, Gardner adds, are characterized by themes. A child might fear separation, monsters, injury or being accepted by his peers at school.
“Sometimes,” he says, “parents may feel anxious that they need to respond to and protect their children. The goal is to help kids learn how to manage their own anxieties and fears.”
What to do
Kristen Sowles of Shelby Township says that when her then-7-year-old daughter woke up in the middle of the night, she or her husband would take her back to her bed. “We tuck her in bed and lay with her for a little while,” Sowles says. “It’s about the comfort of having us near her, especially at night when the house is quiet and a bit scary to a kid.”
Lindsay says that one way to help is to verbally remind and reassure children that when they wake up in middle of the night, it’s OK to lie there for a little while. “A child often thinks, ‘Oh, I’m awake, time to get up!'” says Lindsay. “Or they wake confused and out of sorts, so they seek a parent.”
Helping your child out
Gardner has some suggestions for parents whose children want to sleep in bed with them. “First, recognize the fear is real and causing the child distress,” he says. “Don’t dismiss fear. Instead, figure out what caused the fear.”
Next, he recommends “demystifying” their fears and letting them know it’s common to be scared. “It’s important for parents to point out that sometimes our fears are real, and sometimes they’re unrealistic,” Gardner says. “Sometimes our bodies send out false alarms. Teach children how to reset that alarm. Give a hug (and) kiss and tell them that they’re OK. Sit with them for a little bit.”
Strategies and successes
Teaching your child relaxation strategies, he adds, can be quite helpful. If you give your child ideas on how to switch his focus away from his worries, he can work through his fears on his own.
“Don’t force your child to stay in his room,” says Gardner. “That can cause increased distress. Attend to your child, but also give reassurance that he can work through his fear.”
It’s important to celebrate success with your child, too. When he sleeps independently and manages his own worries, show him that you’re proud.
Getting him to sleep alone is step one. Ditching the nightlight? Well, that’s another story. Here are some tips for getting your child to sleep without a nightlight.
This post was originally published in 2011 and has been updated for 2017.