Q: How do I keep my 5-year-old in her own bed at night? She used to wake me up and ask, but lately she has been sliding in while my husband and I sleep. Any advice?
Kids and sleep – what a roller coaster we can be on with them! We may think we have our children in a bedtime routine and sleeping on their own through the night, and then – surprise! – they are sneaking into our beds, waking up hungry, or experiencing new fears that keep them (and us!) awake at night. Sleep can be one of the trickiest parts of parenting, and it’s one I have struggled with from time to time as a parent. A child’s sleep confidence is influenced by so many factors, and each child’s natural disposition toward sleep varies. There is nothing wrong with a child wanting time with their parents at night – and there is also nothing wrong with you deciding this is no longer working for you and your partner.
My own five-year-old recently went through a period of time of sneaking into our bed at night. At the time, he was experiencing some big changes with leaving his preschool and preparing for kindergarten, and I believe a lot of this behavior was about off-loading stress associated with these changes. With a little extra support from us, he was back on track with his sleep. When it comes to kids with pretty stable sleep habits, sudden changes are usually a clue that they have an emotional project they are working through.
Here are a few steps to take to support your child staying in their bed and sleeping through the night.
Be curious as a parent.
Start with curiosity about what may be driving this change. Have you noticed any changes in your child’s behavior during the day? Is she experiencing any shifts in her routines at home or at school? Have you noticed any new fearfulness or anxieties during the day or night? Spend time exploring these questions to get some hunches about what may be going on in your daughter’s world that could be influencing her behavior at night. Talk with your daughter about any changes or emotions you’ve noticed. If you realize the sliding in at night has coincided closely with a major change – like starting in a new classroom, welcoming a sibling, or the death of a loved one – it may be that your child needs more physical closeness with you and your husband as part of the process of adjusting or recovering. When kids experience more stress or anxiety in their day, they can struggle to feel safe on their own at night.
Assist your child in getting her emotional needs met during the day.
If you’ve been able to identify the emotional project your child is working on, dedicate additional time during waking hours to talk it through, support your child, and if needed, teach new skills to manage the challenge she is facing. Allow her time to offload anxieties. Even with a five-year-old, this may look like staying physically nearby during a tantrum, listening to them as they cry, and letting them know they are safe. Kids are not always able to use words to describe their concerns, but they usually show us in their behaviors, meltdowns, and play. Be intentional about having extra time for physical closeness with your child during the day. Hold her while asking about her day, invite her to sit on your lap to read a book, and ask her if she’d like to snuggle with a blanket when you wake her up or before bed. You might try some silly play or physical play before bedtime to encourage her to release laughter and reduce stress. These tools are hugely helpful in building connection. When kids go to bed with their cups full of connection with you, it is less likely they will go looking for this in the middle of the night.
Talk with your child about how you will handle night-time waking.
Let your child know where you are in the home once they go to sleep. Remind her she is always safe in her bed and that you will be there in the morning when she wakes up. Talk through how you will handle her waking up in the night. Try this: “If you come to my room in the night or call for me, I will come. I will give you a kiss, let you know you are safe, and tuck you back in your bed.” Kids need to know we will be there to comfort them. Scolding or ignoring is likely to only worsen anxiety around sleep. Do your best to vent your own frustrations about your child’s sleep issues with another adult so you are prepared to be present and calm with your child.
Finally, hang in there. Sleep issues are one of the hardest things to deal with as parents. Kids tend to find their way back to their routines with a little time and attention from their caregivers.