Little Kids

Separate slumber

Is it time to evict your child from your bed? Here's how to do it

By Cathryn Tobin, MD
Separate slumber

Every night it’s the same thing. Jenna’s parents plead with her, “Please, please, please stay in your own bed so we can get some sleep,” and every morning five-year-old Jenna can be found curled up between her mom and dad.

What Jenna’s parents are experiencing is common. In many households, the marital bed has morphed into the family bed. Some families are perfectly happy with this arrangement because they enjoy the intimacy and they feel everyone gets a better night’s rest. But other parents want their kids to sleep in their own beds in their own rooms. Neither approach is right or wrong.

But for those who want their bed to themselves, one issue may stand in the way: You want your child to sleep in her own bed, but that doesn’t mean she’ll co-operate. Luckily, there are ways to ease your little one out of your bed (and into her own) without tears, tantrums or tugs of war.

First, it’s important to have a strategy and stick to it. And the strategy needs to be a good fit with your child’s nature. For instance, one child may need only a wee bit of encouragement to change her ways, and this can be accomplished with tiny nudges that are barely perceptible. Another may require a more black-and-white approach that doesn’t allow for any wiggle room.

It’s also vital to realize that younger and older kids learn differently. Toddlers and preschoolers learn through actions — it’s not what you say but what you do that matters. A school-aged child, on the other hand, understands reasoning: “I want you to stay in your own bed tonight because you’ve got a big hockey game this weekend and you need to be well rested.”

Regardless of whether you get the message across with words or actions, kids of all ages learn from consequences. If you respond to your child sneaking out of his bed by walking him back to his room, tucking him in and giving him a big fat kiss, he learns that it pays to get out of bed because at the very least he’ll get a nice kiss. If you want your child to stay in his bed through the night, he needs to discover there are no rewards, positive or negative, associated with getting out of bed after bedtime.

There are basically two approaches to any parenting problem: a fast and a slow one. The fast approach is easier on a youngster who tends to test her luck and who needs to be told “no” several times before she’ll listen. There’s less anxiety involved because all the cards are laid out on the table. The slow approach is designed for a highly sensitive youngster who handles change better when it comes about gradually. If it’s hard to predict which approach will work for your child, start with the slow one.

Any habit can be modified by gradual changes. Say your son won’t go to sleep unless you lie down with him in your bed. You can wean him off this habit by saying, “I’ll lie down with you, but in your bed.” After a few days, start the fade-out process by sitting at the head of the bed until he dozes off. A few nights later, sit at the foot of the bed. Next, sit on the floor, then by the door and, finally, outside the room. If he wants you to lie down with him, say, “Sorry, sweetie, it’s bedtime, not cuddle time.”
If your child sneaks into your room in the middle of the night, allow him to snooze in a sleeping bag on the floor beside your bed. Then, day by day, inch the sleeping bag out of your room until it ends up in his room.

Put a limit on how long it takes to change the habit. Generally, three weeks should do. If you don’t meet your deadline, adjust it — provided you are making progress. If not, consider switching to the fast approach.

Explain to your child exactly what you expect of her, for example: “OK, honey, starting tonight (no forewarning needed), I want you to stay in your bed. If you wake up in the middle of the night, hug your monkey and think about your favourite place, and go back to sleep.” Don’t threaten her with “If you get out of bed tonight, you’re going to be in big trouble,” and don’t bribe her. If she sneaks into your bed during the night (initially, she probably will), use a neutral but firm tone of voice and say, “Back to bed.” Nothing more, nothing less. No hugs, no kisses, no tuck-ins.

The key is to be firm. You’re not being insensitive or mean; you’re simply sending a clear message about bedtime expectations. If your child doesn’t return to her bed on her own, or if she starts crying, give her a moment to calm down; then lead her back to her room and use a firm voice and say, “Back to bed.”

Sleep is a tricky issue and not every child responds in the same way. Some kids change their sleep habits seemingly overnight, others take longer and some rebel every step of the way. If your child falls into the latter two categories, look for incremental improvements and realize small changes eventually add up to big ones.

It wouldn’t be fair to ask a child to change her routine without giving her the tools she needs to adjust. Here are some bedtime coping skills designed to help your child stay in bed.

Mind games If your daughter wakes up in the middle of the night, encourage her to think about a place or activity she loves. Before she goes to bed, remind her that if she wakes up in the middle of the night, she should picture her special place. Ask her to describe her special place in great detail. This technique is effective with kids three years and up.

Fear busters Kids scare easily, especially in the wee hours. You can help your child overcome his fears by teaching him positive visualization techniques. Ask him to think of something scary, and then ask him to picture himself dealing with this situation and coming out the hero. Ask him to paint you a picture with words about how he became the hero. Then, if your child complains about being scared in the middle of the night, say, “I know you’re scared, but you’re a tough kid and you can deal with your fears.”

Security objects A special blanket or stuffed animal makes the transition from hanging out with mom and dad to being alone more relaxing and less stressful. Encourage attachment to a doll or blankie early on.

Progressive relaxation Kids can learn this art at a young age. Make it a game and use words like floppy and droopy to help your kids relax. Begin at the toes and work your way up, asking your child to make her legs floppy like a wet noodle or make her arms droopy like a wilted flower. A favourite relaxation book (which includes a CD) is The Floppy Sleep Game Book by Patti Teel.

This article was originally published on Nov 05, 2007

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