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The Informed Parent

Sleeping With Mom And Dad

by Peter W. Welty, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jan. 26, 2009

Parents of four-year-old Johnny are losing an on-going battle. He refuses to stay in his own bed at night. This has been going on for months. Finally the battle seems to be won--Johnny sleeps in their bed every night. What procedure can be taken to reverse this situation?

Anger and frustration build in parents of children who refuse to sleep in their own bed at night. Let us analyze where this refusal is coming from. Is the child fearful of the dark, afraid of ”monsters” or “robbers”? He may be going through a difficult time in other areas of his life, such as a new babysitter, a recent move, less time spent with him during the day by either parent, or the arrival of a new brother or sister. Fears and phobias are quite common in this age group.

Another cause for the refusal to sleep in his own room may be one of manipulation. Usually this manipulative behavior does not start at once, but is the result of years of bedtime habits and patterns that the parents may unwittingly have created. Putting the baby to sleep at the breast or with the bottle, or allowing him to fall asleep on the couch or in the rocking chair, may lead to habits which are hard to break. Also, lying down with the child to get him to sleep, patting him to sleep, and reading to him until he falls asleep are more examples of unwanted bedtime habits. Granted, every parent allows these behaviors every now and then, especially when the child is ill or when there are other disruptions. The parent needs to move forward to reestablish the original bedtime routine when life has returned to normal.

So, how do parents go about eliminating bedtime refusal? There are many different causes, and so there may be different strategies. If this child expresses fears about his room or “things” in his room, patient and consistent reassurance may be enough. Never ridicule or scold a child for having fears. As I mentioned earlier, they are quite common in this age group, and the children usually outgrow them. Make a routine of checking the closets and under the bed. Allow him to have handy a plastic baseball bat, or a water pistol, which may be the bit of security this child needs. A night light is always helpful.

In order to reverse being taken advantage of, other approaches need to be made. Johnny needs to understand that bedtime is a non-negotiable event. Persistence and patience must be remembered. Some experts have gone to such extremes as to recommend barricading the child in his room at night, predicting that he will most likely stop this behavior after a few nights.

A more positive approach would be a “star chart”, using a calendar to indicate a previously negotiated reward. This reward could be a small car, special dessert, or perhaps 15 extra minutes of “together time” in the morning with Mom or Dad. Children who are also fearful will benefit from a “star chart”. The trick is to involve the child into its negotiation, so that he begins to realize that working for something may be more important than his fears or his bedtime manipulations.

Parents must remain calm and optimistic if Johnny refuses to stay in his bed and does not get a star. He will be told that they hope he will stay in his room the next night. If he comes out of his room again, he may not sleep in his parents’ bed. Forcing him to stay in his own bed is not necessary, but it is up to him to find his own blanket and pillow, and sleep somewhere else. Usually the floor is very acceptable. Some experts have found that the simple idea of sleeping on the floor immediately solves nearly 99% of children’s bedtime problems. Parents should not make a “nest” for their child anywhere outside his bedroom. They should also make it clear that they will not interact with the child on any level, and will not be enticed into a dialogue, until morning.

After a week or so of nightly success, prolong the reward to every three-to-four nights. Maybe a trip to McDonald’s or a video can be negotiated. Give this procedure six weeks. Bedtime problems are difficult. Persistence, patience and calm determination will win out.

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