Research suggests that attitudes about sleeping in the parental bed, or co-sleeping, vary across cultures. If a given culture finds this to be acceptable, and the family enjoys it, then there doesn’t seem to be any problems affiliated with it. So, this blog entry is not for those situations. This entry regards situations in which a kid expresses distress at sleeping in his or her own room, the most common cause of which is anxiety.
Tip #1: Consider whether you or your family’s dynamic is facilitating your child’s distress. Sometimes it is a parent who feels anxious about a kid sleeping in his or her own room (e.g., “what if a burglar breaks in and I’m not there to help?!”). Or, it may be that the kid sleeping in the bed averts dealing with a problem in the primary adult relationship (e.g., one parent wants to avoid conflict over sex). Dealing effectively with such underlying issues sometimes can make the surface problem go away on its own.
Tip #2: Avoid avoidance. This is good counsel across all domains of a kid’s life. Anxiety is fed when a kid avoids developmentally appropriate and safe situations because of fear.
Tip #3: Approach the situation with a calm, kind and firm manner. In regards to we parent-lunatics: when our kid hurts we hurt worse. Because of how our kid’s distress makes us feel, we sometimes react without considering whether the distress is good for our kid to experience (e.g., we remove the distress, we get agitated at our kid, we cave in).
Tip #4: Avoid excessive reassurance. A reassurance indicates that there is something potentially dangerous at hand. When explaining this principal to parents I’ll say “imagine I told you not to worry about the roof of this office collapsing on us. Can you sense the discomfort you’d start to feel about the security of the roof?”
Tip #5: Figure out the pacing of the “exposure.” Exposure means allowing (or sometimes forcing) a child to face a developmentally appropriate and safe situation that distresses him or her. If the amount of distress is manageable, the strategy may simply be to insist that he or she sleep in his or her own bed. If the amount of distress is more severe, you can introduce a schedule (e.g., at first you sleeps in your child’s room for a week or so, then you transition to sleeping there only until your child falls asleep, then only for a few minutes as your child settles in and then not at all).
Tip #6: Consider reasonable steps for promoting your child’s comfort. You might decorate the room in a motif pleasing to your child, allow him or her to sleep in special pajamas, leave on a night light, leave your child’s bedroom door open or allow him or her to fall asleep to music or an audio recording of a familiar story. (You don’t story to be so novel and interesting so as to keep your child up. You also want to be sure to turn it off after your child falls asleep as the quality of his or her sleep will not be as good if it remains on. The same goes for music.)
Tip #7: Many kids don’t need this, but you could always set up a reward program. For milder instances this could be as simple as putting stars on a calendar and offering a treat when 7-10 stars are earned (e.g., having a sleep over, purchasing a desired video game). For more entrenched and difficult situations you can set up a daily reward (e.g., TV is earned the next day by having gone to bed properly the night before) as well as a bonus (e.g., a trip to a local water park is earned after 14 nights of sleeping in the bed). (If you set up a program where X number of days earns a reward, it typically would not be required that the days be consecutive.)
Tip #8: If the above self-help interventions do not work, seriously consider consulting with a child psychologist. There may be other complexities at play or your child may need treatment for an anxiety disorder (most of the time anxiety disorders can be treated efficiently and effectively through cognitive-behavioral therapy). To find a provider near you, click here. Below are some related blog posts that you might also find to be of interest and don’t forget to follow me at my Twitter feed: @HelpingParents):