Sleep problems are pretty much a given at some point in parenthood — yours, theirs or, most often, both of yours. Guess what’s not helping? This pandemic, thankyouverymuch. Kids are more cooped up than ever. They’re dealing with pent-up energy and strange new schedules, plus some extra anxiety mixed in for good measure. It’s understandable if kids find falling asleep in their own beds difficult right now. Still, that doesn’t mean a parent wants to share their bed indefinitely. As one parent wrote in to us:
My daughter is 5, and we’ve shifted into her “big girl bed,” but she still refuses to sleep alone. She says she’s scared. I haven’t forced the issue because we are all getting sleep and I didn’t want to make another big change in the middle of the pandemic, but I feel like it’s way past time. How do you stop co-sleeping with an older child?
Dear “Temporary Bed-Sharer,”
I think we’ve all loosened the parenting reins a little right now, whether it’s allowing more screen time that usual, letting the kids stay up later, feeding them more snacks or just throwing our hands up in general and saying, “fine, whatever make ya happy!” (In my home, there is a lot of Minecraft happening. Truly, a LOT of Minecraft.)
In your question, I’m hearing partly that you want to stop co-sleeping and partly that you think you should stop co-sleeping. So the first thing I would suggest is to consider whether this is something you truly want to do — mainly because your ultimate success will probably be directly correlated to how committed you are. You’re probably going to want to buckle in for a rough ride, is what I’m saying.
I’m not sure if the co-sleeping is a newer habit or whether your daughter ever actually slept in her “big girl bed,” but you mention she’s saying she’s scared at night. When I reached out to Tracy Ball, a speech-language pathologist with Enable My Child, for advice on how to effectively communicate with you child about the transition, he said it’s important to first dig in to what exactly she means when she says she’s scared — and to really listen to her answer.
“If a child says, ‘I’m scared, there are monsters in my room,’ and you say, ‘There’s no such thing a monsters,’ well, now they need to convince you,” Ball says. Instead, “really listen to them. Say, ‘Tell me what you see; show me what you see,’ and really dive in for three minutes. Validate their emotions by listening and brainstorm solutions together.”
If she’s scared of the dark, you can go shopping for a nightlight together. If she’s scared of monsters, brainstorm a creative antidote for them. If she’s afraid to be alone, maybe keeping the bedroom door cracked open will help. Just be careful not to go too far into “protective mode.” Whenever possible, Ball says, focus your phrasing less on protecting her from a bad nighttime experience and more on what they can do to get good sleep and have happy dreams. You don’t want to dismiss her fears, but putting too much emphasis on protecting her from the scary stuff may actually reinforce that there is, in fact, something to be afraid of.
Next, Ball suggests writing up a bedtime routine — together. Because she’s five years old, the “together” part is crucial here; you want her to have some say in creating a calming routine. It might be something like: bath time, pajamas, reading, snuggles, a couple of songs and then lights out. The order is less important than the consistency of the routine. And you can have fun with it by drawing or creating a picture chart or schedule to hang up as a reminder and a way to keep you both on task.
“Focus on spending time together and setting up that structure so they’re getting a lot of good quality time before bed,” Ball says — because quality time with you may actually be what she’s craving.
You can empathise with what she wants (to sleep next to you) while also reinforcing the boundaries you are putting in place (her bed is for her to sleep in; your bed is for you). Praise her efforts to follow your new schedule, particularly as she becomes successful in staying put. But mainly? Stay consistent, consistent, consistent.