“I had a bad dream! Can I sleep with you?”
It’s the siren song of children across the globe, much to the chagrin of countless parents. Parents who give in find themselves sacrificing their privacy for months or even years. Parents who hold firm must listen to endless sobs and worry that they are dooming their children to years of counselling to recover from the whole experience.
There’s a better way, but it’s not always easy. Here’s what you need to know about children who won’t sleep in their own rooms.
Why Won’t My Child Sleep in His Room?
Parents are quick to dismiss annoying behaviour by children as deliberate or manipulative ploys. The truth is that, until the age of about 8, children simply do not have the intellectual or psychological wherewithal to be manipulative. And even then, their behaviour usually has to do with attempting to get their needs met—not a desire to manipulate you.
For most of human history, children have slept in the same room as their parents. Infants typically slept in the same bed, while children normally slept in a small hut or home with parents only a few feet away. The way we do things now is a radical departure from how humans have evolved to sleep, so it’s no wonder that children struggle with it. Before you do anything, know this: your child can’t sleep in her own room because she is reacting to centuries of evolutionary heritage, not because she wants to be naughty or manipulative.
Ultimately, there are two reasons children won’t sleep in their own rooms, and for most children, both factors are an issue:
- Bedtime is a time for closeness and comfort, and children like being in contact with their parents. Your child’s desire to sleep with you is a sign that he or she has a healthy attachment to you. In other words, if your child keeps you up at night, it means you’ve done something right—hard as that may be to believe!
- Night-time is scary. Ghosts and goblins, shadows and noises, and very real fears about burglars can keep children up all night. It’s easy to dismiss these fears, but children cannot. Think of the time you’ve been most afraid in your entire life. Odds are good that is what your child feels every time he or she goes to sleep. Consider this next time you find yourself getting angry about your child’s inability to sleep alone.
Can Therapy Help?
Refusing to sleep alone is developmentally normal for children under two, and children may continue to struggle through eight or nine. Thereafter, your child may need help. Additionally, consider therapy if:
- Your child has extreme and unreasonable fears that do not relent.
- Your child has recently experienced a trauma.
- Your child shows symptoms of anxiety or depression.
- You have recently gotten divorced.
- There is violence or verbal abuse in the family.
A Plan for Independent Sleeping
The key to getting your child to sleep alone involves three separate components:
- Create a sleeping space that feels safe. Allow your child to remodel his or her room, and remove anything scary, such as a lamp that casts a creepy shadow. Install a quality night light and a white noise machine.
- Show your child he or she can trust you. Do not lock the door to your room, and do not banish him or her from your room. Instead, keep bedtime rituals calm, loving, and full of reassurance.
- Gradually move your child back into his or her room. This can take weeks or even months. Begin by asking him or her to sleep in the room alone for brief periods—10 or 15 minutes—and check on her in between these intervals. Gradually increase the time between checks until your child is successfully falling asleep alone.
If you’re still having trouble after three months of trying, consider consulting a counsellor.