Parents, Get Your Bed Back

Last Editorial Review: 7/30/2010

Got a child who wanders to your bedroom at night? Here's how to reclaim your bed.

By Lisa Fields
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

If you've got a young child who wanders into your bedroom at night -- and are wondering what to do about it -- you're not alone. Plenty of toddlers, preschoolers, even school-aged children nationwide are sleeping with their parents at least some of the time. As many as 24% of parents have their children sleep in their beds for at least part of the night, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).

Just ask Karen Higdon of Prarie Grove, Ark. When she converted her 4-year-old twins' nursery into a "big girl room" this summer, complete with toddler beds and colorful new bedding, Kaylee and Gracie Higdon were excited...up to a point. They were eager to explore their room during the daytime, but after the sun set, the pair would nervously chatter about monsters, as they'd done for the past year.

When the twins were 3, Karen and Richard Higdon had snuggled up under the covers with them to make bedtime less frightening: one girl in the nursery, one in the parents' room. A year later, the Higdons felt trapped by their routine, so they redesigned the nursery with hopes that an inviting new sleep venue would give Kaylee and Gracie confidence to sleep by themselves.

"At first, we felt like [bedtime] was our 'alone' time with the girls, but they were starting to get too dependent," says Karen Higdon. "We needed to wean them off of us."

Changing Habits

There are two reasons for co-sleeping," says NSF spokeswoman Jodi Mindell, PhD, author of Sleeping Through the Night. "One is a family lifestyle decision; it's important to the parents. Reason two is reactive cosleeping; you don't really want them there, but it's easier than having to solve a problem at 2 a.m. No matter which you do, at some point, you'll want to make a change."

Switching a nighttime routine can be difficult because biology isn't on your side. "There's nothing wrong with parents or children if they can't get their kids to sleep all night," says child sleep expert James McKenna, PhD, professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. "Sleep is a flexible behavior. People needed to be able to wake up back when we had predators and nighttime was dangerous. And children who wake seek out their parents."

At the Higdon household, after three nights of a new bedtime routine -- involving nightlights, bedtime stories, music, and talking about the bedroom as a safe place filled with love -- Kaylee and Gracie were falling asleep in their own beds and sleeping in their own room all night. "Gracie told me I was right," Karen Higdon says. "There are no monsters in the room, and she loves sleeping there."

Here's how to transition your child to sleep in his own bed all night:

Start Early

It's easier to train a toddler to sleep in his room when he's in a crib, since he won't be able to get out of bed and look for you. "If a child in a bed thinks he can visit you at bedtime, it can turn into a game, and that's usually when problems occur," says child sleep consultant Dana Obleman, author of The Sleep Sense Program.

Use Positive Language

Be encouraging and you can make your child eager to make the switch. "Say, 'Guess what? You're three! Three-year-olds get to sleep in their beds all night! Isn't this great?" Mindell says. "It's a positive spin, like 'You get to wear underwear!' instead of 'You shouldn't be wearing diapers.'"

Reconfigure Bedtime

If your child can't fall asleep without your presence, slowly withdraw yourself from the equation, Obleman says. Instead of lying in your bed together, sit on your child's bed until she falls asleep. After a few days, switch to a chair, then gradually move the chair closer to her doorway and into the hallway.

Take Small Steps

It may not be reasonable to demand that a child who's accustomed to sleeping in your bed suddenly stay in his own room all night, so try making the separation more gradual. "Some parents have told me that they've had their children sleep alongside their bed in a sleeping bag," McKenna says. "Or decide that they can have 15 minutes in your bed and then they go back."

Shannon Choe of Berwyn, Pa., has an air mattress in her room in case her 2-, 4- or 7-year-old visits at night. "They get to be closer to us but not disrupt our sleep, and it's not so comfortable that they'll choose this option long-term," she says.

Be Consistent

It may be hard to walk your son back to his room at 3 a.m. when you have work in the morning, but be firm every night. "Think about the long term," Mindell says. "You'll have a few difficult nights, but soon, you'll all be sleeping all night."

Make it Worth Their While

Some parents offer sticker charts; others give rewards like extra playtime. Janine Bush of Boxboro, Mass., created a toy-ticket program to stop her 6-year-old son from sneaking into her bed at 2 a.m. When her son slept consecutive nights in his own bed, he won tickets to trade in for new toys.

Outsmart Quiet Footsteps

Hang a bell on your bedroom doorknob, and you'll notice when your child enters. "Say, 'When I hear that bell, it's a reminder that I get to put you back to bed," Mindell says.

Introduce a Clock

Place an inexpensive digital clock by your preschooler's bedside. "Put duct tape over the minutes and talk about the number she'll see in the dark," Obleman says. "Say, 'In our house, nobody gets up before 7. If it's not showing a 7, go back to sleep.'"

Create a Plan of Action

Instead of simply telling your child not to get out of bed, teach her how to fall back asleep. "I tell them to stay in bed, close their eyes, and think about something fun, like what they want to do on their birthdays," says Tracey Weil of Washington, D.C., whose 6-, 8-, and 9-year-olds sleep through the night. "Giving them something to think about is a great tool to help them fall back asleep."


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Don't Cave in for Special Circumstances

When your daughter is sick or she can't fall asleep after watching a scary movie, you can still comfort her without inviting her into your bed. "A lot of parents forget that they can go to the kid," Mindell says. "You can sleep in her room [on an air mattress]."

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Jodi Mindell, PhD, child sleep expert, National Sleep Foundation spokeswoman; author, Sleeping Through the Night.

James McKenna, child sleep expert, anthropology professor, University of Notre Dame.

Dana Obleman, child sleep consultant; author, The Sleep Sense Program.

Karen Higdon, mother, Prairie Grove, Ark.

Janine Bush, mother, Boxboro, Mass.

Tracey Weil, mother, Washington, D.C.

National Sleep Foundation: "2004 Sleep in America Poll."

Reviewed on July 30, 2010

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