The Night Visitor: Trips to the Parent's Bed

by Elizabeth Pantley

If your house echoes with the sound of pat-pat-pat down the hallway when your child leaves his room to climb into your bed in the middle of the night, rest assured that you are not alone. It's perfectly natural for a toddler or preschooler to search out his parents for comfort and security -- it's a sign of his trust and his deep love for you. And it's perfectly normal for parents to provide that comfort and security by bringing their child into their bed, or by lying with him in his own bed.

There are many gentle ways to encourage your child to stay in his bed all night, but before I introduce those ideas, its best if you evaluate your situation. I'd like to ask you to think about your answers to these questions:

  • Are you, your partner and your child all getting a good night's sleep?
  • If no one else in the world knew or cared about what you're doing would you happy with the routine that you have now?
  • Are your child's visits to your bed interfering with the level of intimacy between the two of you?
  • Are you thinking of making a change because you want a change and because it's right for your family -- or to appease a friend, relative or someone else?
  • If -- tonight -- your child suddenly began to sleep all night in his own bed, how would you feel: overjoyed, happy, a bit sad, very sad, depressed?
  • What -- specifically -- about your child's night visits bothers you?
  • Why does your child visit you in the night? Is it simply a habit? Or are fears, nightmares, separation anxiety, teething, or other problems causing her to wake up and search you out?

The first step is to ponder these questions and to examine your real feelings about the situation. Often ambivalence and frustration is borne out of not taking the time to identify what you really feel, and not having a clear goal and purpose to your actions. Once you have a better understanding of your thoughts, and your partners thoughts, choose one of these goals:

  • We're going to continue as we are, without guilt or concern for ____ months. At that time we will reevaluate the situation and make a new decision.
  • We're in no rush, but would like to begin making a change. We're going to make gradual changes and anticipate that within ___ months our child will be sleeping all night in his own bed.
  • We want to make a change right now, as soon as possible, so we will commit to a specific plan and follow it every night.

Don't send mixed messages

If you've shared your bed with your cuddly and sweet-smelling toddler or preschooler, whether from birth, or just recently, I can almost guarantee that that even though you've decided to move her out, there is a little part of you that doesn't want to let her go. This is natural, given the preciousness of the experience of sharing your bed with your child. However, if you really do want your child to sleep in her own bed, you'll need to keep these emotions in check. Don't make the mistakes that these test families did during the moving process. (The names have been changed to protect the guilty from embarrassment.)

Sharon reported that by using the ideas in their sleep plan they were having great success getting their toddler, Kayla to sleep in her own bed. "She did so for a whole week and I was getting very excited! Tonight, as she was getting ready to get into her bed, my husband. . . as a reward for her doing this. . . invited her back into our room! So, needless to say we are back at square one with more resistance."

"I can't believe what I did!" Marisa's new message came just a week after she emailed to tell me that Gracie was making far fewer visits to her mommy's bed during the night. "I woke up last night and realized that Gracie was spending yet another night in her own bed. I missed her next to me so much that I went into her room and climbed in bed with her! Now tonight we're heading up to get ready for bed and sure enough, she's asking me to sleep in her bed with her again! I think I've just created a whole new problem! Please help!"