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Does your child sneak into your bed in the middle of the night? You’re not alone. (In this instance, you’re truly not alone!) Some parents don’t mind their little midnight (and 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.) snugglers, but others want privacy—or don’t enjoy sharing space with an acrobatic sleeper.
When Judy Lu’s son, Connor, graduated to a twin-sized bed just before he turned three, he stopped sleeping through the night and began wandering into his parents’ bedroom between midnight and 2 a.m.
“He would have his stuffy in one hand and his blanket in the other, then crawl into the middle of the bed,” says Lu. “He fell asleep quite quickly, but then he would roll around in his sleep until he was sideways: head on me and feet on my husband.”
These nighttime visits to the “big bed” are classic preschool behaviour. Younger toddlers are often still confined to their cribs, but three- and four-year-olds tend to test out their new-found freedom and reasoning skills. And they may remain in your bed regularly by default: When you’re half-asleep, it’s hard to think straight or stick to a plan. Even walking your child back to their own room repeatedly (sometimes called the “silent return”) can be tricky to enforce. But with some strategy and perseverance, it is possible to get your kid to stay put until morning.
“There isn’t a magic pill to help children sleep better—good habits take time and consistency to establish,” says Reshma Amin, a sleep physician and paediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. “The family has to be ready and committed to putting in the time to effect a change in sleep habits.”
Do you wait in your child’s room or cuddle her as she falls asleep? It may be what’s standing in the way of your child’s nighttime independence. When they awaken later, they may seek you out because they think they need you there in order to nod off again. To help your child fall asleep independently at the beginning of the night, try the “chair method,” a popular sleep-training technique for infants that can work on bigger kids too. Start by sitting in a chair by the bedside and stay until they fall asleep, and after a few days, move the chair to the middle of the room, then to the doorway and, eventually, out of the room.
“You’re slowly removing the parental presence,” says Jennifer Borst, a paediatric sleep consultant in Hammonds Plains, NS. “For overnight awakenings, it’s important to consistently repeat that approach. If you were in the chair in the middle of the room when they fell asleep, return to the middle of the room again.”
“Lying down, getting comfortable, closing their eyes—we are making assumptions that the child knows how to do that,” Borst says. “You can give young ones a phrase or mantra to use, like, ‘It’s time for sleep, I close my eyes, I stay in bed.’ Teach your kids to tell their bodies what to do. ‘I tell my body it’s time to rest and go to sleep.’”
If your child wakes up in the middle of the night and needs to be comforted, rather than allowing your child into your bed, think about sleeping in their room. (It’s easier to extract yourself from their bedroom than to get them to stop joining you in yours.) “Some parents camp out in the child’s room the entire night and slowly move their presence out,” Borst says.
If your child shows up in your bed an hour or two before it’s time to get up, putting a digital clock in their room with duct tape over the minutes can help. Train them to stay in their own bed until the hour shows a seven, for example. Or get a toddler clock that lights up when it’s time to be awake; they may need the help of a visual cue. “Some kids’ clocks change colours when it’s time to get up. Some have a dim light set to a timer; the light turns on when it’s bedtime and goes out when it’s time to get up.” You can also help incentivize this by using a sticker chart or little prizes to reward them for waiting in their own bed.
Sound excited whenever you mention their room. Do calm activities, like reading, in there during the day to make it seem welcoming. Redecorating could also help. About a month after Connor started sneaking into her bedroom, Lu surprised her train-obsessed son with new train-themed bedding. “We told him that coming to our room disrupts his sleep and he won’t have good energy levels to play in the morning. Now his room is decorated with the things he likes, so he doesn’t feel scared or lonely if he wakes up,” Lu says. “He doesn’t come to our room anymore.”