I brace myself at 4 a.m. for the sound: thumpity thump, thump. Our bedroom door swings open and my four-year-old daughter thrusts herself at my bedside. I reach out an arm and swing her onto our bed. It’s wrong, but at 4 a.m., it feels so right.
We’ve tried it all: enduring tantrums (which often woke her baby brother); lying down with her; rubbing her back and shh-ing softly; stealthly tiptoeing out only to be met by a shrill, “Where are you going?” We bought a new bed; she stayed put for a few nights. A sticker chart worked for a while. Then, on advice from a fellow sleep-deprived parent, we resorted to bribery: Stay in bed, we’ll give you money. I’m not proud, but it worked. And then it didn’t.
The Canadian Sleep Society reports that one quarter of parents complain of paediatric behavioural insomnia, when children have trouble settling, falling or staying asleep. It’s a conservative estimate for preschoolers, says Aimée Coulombe, a post-doctoral research fellow in the Better Days/Better Nights program at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
“Preschoolers go through huge physical and developmental changes. They are capable of more, including being able to get out of bed on their own,” says Coulombe. “Any life change creeps in at night — adjusting to school, Mom going back to work. And preschoolers struggle with independence; part of that is resisting what their parents want.”
“Kids this age have incredible imaginations,” says Shannon Mills, a paediatric occupational therapist and mother of two in Barrie, Ont. “What allows them to believe in magical fairies also makes monsters real. Nightmares, fear of the dark and separation anxiety are all standard in this phase.”
Part of Coulombe’s research focuses on how parents respond to night waking. “It’s the middle of the night — everything in your body is telling you to go back to sleep,” she says. “Unfortunately, what makes sense for the short-term doesn’t necessarily work with longer-term goals.” Hmm… Could she be referring to strategies like paying your child to stay in bed?
“You could give her a thousand dollars and it wouldn’t work,” says Shelly Weiss, a paediatric neurologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and author of Better Sleep for Your Baby and Child. “Children need to learn to fall asleep on their own, because this affects how they get back to sleep at night.” It can be confusing if Mom was lying there when a child fell asleep and isn’t there when he wakes, Weiss explains. The Better Day/Better Nights program provides these strategies for parents:
- Spend as much time together during the day or evening, so your child doesn’t feel the need to fill up on attention and affection at bedtime (or after).
- Have a consistent, relaxing nighttime routine where you increase exposure to darkness, triggering the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
- Reduce exposure to media before bed.
- Set clear, consistent limits: “If they get up after lights-out, or in the middle of the night, walk them back to bed. You will face resistance, and it might take a while, but you’ll get there,” says Coulombe.
Mills encourages parents to discuss any anxieties with their children to help them make sense of fears. “Choose a stuffed animal that you ‘fill’ with love so if they wake in the night, they can grab it and squeeze it,” she suggests.
We have put research into practise: When our daughter tries to crawl into our bed, we walk her back, endure a few tears, then shut the door. Sometimes we have to repeat this – other times, once is enough. Slowly, but surely, it seems to be working. And, hey, we’re saving a few bucks.