Last week, a mother asked for suggestions for dealing with her almost six-year-old daughter, who still climbs into bed with her parents every night.
"She goes to bed in her own bed, and I talk to her about staying there all night, but when she comes, she always says it's because she's had a bad dream," she wrote. "None of us are getting a very good sleep because of it. Any suggestions?"
Here's what our readers and parent educators had to say:
My youngest daughter climbed into bed with my husband and me almost every night for a year when she was around four years old. Sometimes, it happened two or three times a night. She rarely said why she woke up and I suspect it just became a habit.
Wake up - go to Mom and Dad's room. I would never let her stay in our bed, as she flailed around and no one would get any rest. Instead, I would silently take her back to her room and rub her back or lie with her until she fell asleep. It never took long. If she said she was scared or had a bad dream, we would quietly talk about the dream and then I'd stay until she fell asleep. I remember having the same bad dream almost every night when I was around five years old and how scary it could be, so I persevered and she finally stayed in her own bed by the time she was five.
Anne Boudewyn, E.C.E.
The subject of children waking up through the night and crawling into their parents' bed is a pretty common one. When my kids were young, our home was like a flop house. I never knew who would be sleeping where because I had little ones coming into our bed or we'd fall asleep in their room while we were trying to comfort them. Our goal was to get some sleep and I sensed that this stage would pass, yet at a certain point, my tolerance for waking up through the night diminished.
We have the patience when our children are infants and even preschoolers, but as we add more to our daily lives while our children grow, our expectations grow too.
Your daughter is six, an age when there are many things going on in her life. She is navigating school and friends, along with the business of life. She is also at an age where she is exposed to more realities of the world, as she experiences fire drills, earthquake preparedness and cancer awareness.
It's a lot for our little ones - even just seeing a commercial on television can intrude on a child's mind with scary images and thoughts.
The word "still" in your question has me thinking that she has never learned to put herself back to sleep.
Learning to fall asleep on your own is like learning to swim without a life jacket - it is possible and even better once the jacket is taken off. It can promote trust in one's self and contribute to a sense of independence.
Part of this is helping her find ways to self-comfort. I recommend the picture book What to Do When You Dread Your Bed, by Dawn Huebner. It's an interactive self-help book for children that addresses the busy mind and fears. Your daughter needs to develop some strategies, so she knows what else she can do beside throwing on the parental life jacket.
Your task might be to give her daily opportunities to download any worries she has.
Often, kids need a different perspective and reassurance, so it's helpful to give them a regular space for it. Because kids usually do this right at bedtime, make it a time earlier in the day. If they can count on that five-minute worry time, that can work wonders.
Once you have all the support in place, your task is to be consistent - not just for a few nights but at least a few weeks. You need to be somewhat rigid for this to work - if you aren't, your inconsistency will make this worse.
That means that after your regular bedtime routine, you let her know that you expect her to stay in her bed.
Remember, she has some strategies and you've been there for her through the day, so when she gets up, lovingly escort her back to bed without a lot of words.
Preferably whisper as you say, "You are safe, I love you and you sleep in your own bed."
Allison Rees Parent Educator LIFE Seminars
Parents often struggle with sleeping challenges. Children need to feel a strong connection with their parents and the hours they are in bed are sometimes a separation too great to bear.
They can't hang onto the relationship when they are sleeping in their own room, so they wake up in the night, become scared and seek out Mummy and Daddy.
Your daughter is not doing this to be annoying or for attention; she needs you. When your daughter comes to you in the night, take her back to bed and lie with her until she is settled and comfortable.
Knowing you will not force her to be alone when she is scared will allow her to relax and know that you are there for her whenever she needs you.
When you have been apart from your children after a day at school or a night in bed, the connection needs to be re-established.
Bedtimes are a time of consternation for children, as the hours between the goodnight kiss and morning can seem very long.
The closer the relationship, the easier it is for the child to hang onto it when the parent is not there. Getting upset with her or demanding that she stay in her own bed will only make her more anxious and upset.
There are a few things you can do to help your daughter hold you close throughout the night. First of all, make sure the bedtime routine involves lots of snuggles and closeness.
Reading to her and quietly talking about her day are great evening activities. Give her a special sleep stuffy, and let her know that if she wakes in the night, she can give the stuffy some snuggles to remind her that you are thinking about her and holding her close.
Tell her that you will dream of her and that you look forward to the morning when you will see her again.
Sometimes, giving the child something of yours to have in her room to remind her that you love her helps.
In the morning, make time to reconnect after a night apart. Reading a story or two with lots of snuggles will allow her to reconnect with you and allow her to endure the separation that school presents.
The closer you hold your daughter, the sooner she will mature enough to venture forth and show independence. Every child gets there when they are ready.
Jean Bigelow Parent Educator
There is a lovely book called Whump by Gail Chislett. It's for children and is about this exact problem. Very enjoyable.
NEXT WEEK'S QUESTION:
Our two daughters, ages 5 and 8, are bigger girls and sometimes want to wear clothes that do not fit their bodies well. We are trying to let them pick out what they want to wear, but it usually ends up in a power struggle if the combination of clothing they choose does not fit them well.
Shopping for clothes is a struggle in itself, as it breaks my heart when they love something but I have to say no because it does not fit their bodies. Our main concern is the language we choose - we want to teach our girls to love their body shape and to find clothes that work for them.
How do we advise our daughters and respect their sense of self expression without the power struggle?
Do you have any advice for this parent? Are you struggling with a parenting dilemma? Send your input to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please put "the parent rap" in the subject line. Questions about kids from infants to teenagers are welcome.