Sleep Routines

Hi Sharon, Do you have any recommendations for parents who are having problems keeping the kids in their own beds at night? Our daughter is constantly coming into our bed in the middle of the night. We wake up and she’s there and we’re both too tired to deal with it, so we leave her there. What, if anything, should we be doing? Thanks.

Dear Parent, Your question may be the one I am most frequently asked by parents. Years ago this was never discussed openly. It was a big secret that many families let their children crawl into bed with them like you do. It is very good that the topic is now coming up for discussion, it can only make things easier for all of us.

Many parents feel like they must be doing something wrong if their child expresses any interest in popping into their bed at night. It should be comforting to know that in this way children are much like adults — they like having the option to sleep close to someone they love at night.

Having said that, there are many different points of view about the topic. A quick trip to the parenting section of the library or neighborhood book store will give you a wide range of opinions – be sure to compare different ideas before deciding which one best suits your family’s dynamic.

Here is what I think. Much of your solution to this situation should be determined by your parental needs for sleep and if you have a partner, for how things go for the two of you under these conditions. Children sleeping in your bed can greatly interfere with your sleep and most parents are seriously sleep deprived from handling the demands of parenting during the day. Children in beds can also affect your relationship with your partner and tension in parental relationships can have serious ramifications for everyone in the family. If either of these is true for you do whatever you can to avoid this added stress. It may mean keeping your child in his or her own bed. or it may be that one of the suggestions below will help.

Before going to the suggestions let’s talk about what is going on for children at night. Children, like most of us, process much of their experience from the day throughout the evening and night time hours. Some of this processing can be enjoyable but some can be full of tension and worry. Even though children have far less responsibility than adults it takes a lot of mental energy to juggle the trials and tribulations of learning countless new skills, handling the intricacies of relationships with friends and teachers, and figuring out what to do with the times when Mom, Dad or babysitter is grouchy or too busy to listen or play.

Children’s lives are never simple, if you take a look back at your own childhood you can probably remember. In today’s complicated world there is even more on our children’s plate. Many children do this necessary mental processing when their minds and body slow down at night and while a little one’s mind is sorting things through a kind ear and warm body can be incredibly reassuring. Of course, she or he can’t explain all of this to you, instead they sneak into your bed in the middle of the night when you are most unable to wage your argument against the idea. This is an incredibly common scenario.

What do parents do to handle all of this? There are many excellent books on family beds if you think your family might be one that would be interested in trying it out. Parents I have talked to have figured out other solutions to this question as well. Some families have enough room to put a child sized “addition” on to their bed so that children can be close-by for some or all of the night without completely invading their space. Other parents have put large beds in their child’s room so that if their child has trouble falling asleep, is sick or wakes up in the night they can go to them, leave once their child is resting comfortably or get a good nights sleep even if it is not in their own bedroom. The most common solution I have heard is that if things get too crowded one parent, usually the Dad, ends up in the child’s bed or on a couch somewhere. (Although extremely common this is my least favorite solution – especially if Dad is then lonely or physically uncomfortable)

My point of view is that children grow up quickly, especially in this fast paced world. Many of us feel that if we let our children sleep with us then they will never grow up and have lives of their own – each of us has our own version of these fears. I fall on the side of the argument that says that this period in your child’s life will change and you will look back on it wondering where it all went. Soon enough, your children will move into their own beds and experience adult’s night’ sleep. If you can sleep your way through your child’s company give it a try; there are many wonderful things about going to sleep and/or waking up together for you and your child. If you can’t sleep well under these circumstances or if it goes against the culture of your family that is more than fine.

Whatever you decide, try to remember that all children sleep more soundly when they have had at least an hour of active, playful contact with their parents well before bedtime. Sometimes requests for Mom or Dad during the night can mean they were physically or emotionally missing their parents during their day and a good round of play can definitely help. Play can help a child process the excitement and tension from the earlier part of their day as well.

Ultimately I trust parent’s judgment on this topic, sleep well and enjoy.