The Night Visitor: Trips to the Parent's Bed

Elizabeth Pantley's picture

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!"

It is OK to make a change you know!

For those of you who are still with me -- those of you who have decided that it's time to move your little cuddler out of your bed and say goodbye to those nighttime pokes from little elbows and toes -- let me reassure you that it's perfectly fine to make this change. There is no one right age or time or situation to adhere to, it's just a matter of choice: and if you're ready, you're ready. Your child is obviously well loved and secure, and those feelings won't change when you use a sensitive, loving method to keep her sleeping in her own bed all night long.

What to do next

There are a number of ways to keep your little one in his own bed all night. Since every child is different, and every situation is different, each family will approach this is a unique way. What follows is a menu list of ideas for you to choose from. Pick one, two or more that sound right for you and give them an honest try. Be patient and keep to your plan. Over the next few weeks or months you will see success. How quickly this happens depends on your child's personality and how motivated you are to move things along.

The solutions

What follows is a list of ideas that have worked for other families like yours. You can choose from these, or combine bits and pieces to create a totally unique solution.

  • From bed to floor to out the door
    If you don't mind your child coming into your room during the night, but would like to keep him out of your bed, then set up a sleeping place for him in your bedroom. This place can be as simple as a futon and blanket on the floor to a den made out of a folding card table draped with a sheet which houses a sleeping bag and pillow.

    During the night, if he forgets the new plan and climbs in bed with you, just help him down to his little place and remind him that's where he needs to be. It's perfectly fine to lay with him until he falls asleep at first. It will help him get used to this new routine.

  • The morning snuggle
    This idea shifts your child's visit from the midnight hours to a more acceptable early-morning time. Many parents enjoy this plan as well, since they don't have to give up snuggling their little one entirely, but can do so after they've had a good night's sleep.

    Tell your child that she can come in "When it's light outside." This works if daylight appears at the right time for you. Another is to set a music or white noise alarm to go off quietly at an acceptable time. Explain, .If the music is playing you can come to our bed. If it's quiet, then please go back to sleep until the music plays..

  • The weekend promise
    Tell your child that when she stays in her bed all week then she can sleep with you on the weekend, or on Saturday. Post a calendar and let her adhere a star to each day that she sleeps all night without waking you. Put a special design on the weekend days.

    This idea works perfectly for some children who relish their weekend sleep-overs in the big bed. Others, though, find it too difficult to separate yes nights from no nights. If you think it may work with your little one, give it a try.

  • The Rubber Band Bounce
    This is a good idea for a family who wants to make a quick change to their middle-of-the-night routine, and for a parent who's willing to get out of bed repeatedly for a week or so.

    Just before your bedtime routine begins, explain briefly why you want her to stay in her bed, for example, "When you come in my room during the night you wake me up and then I'm grumpy." And tell her that you want her to stay in her bed all night long. Begin the night with a pleasant, peaceful go-to-bed routine. Finish it with your child in her bed. Anytime she gets up -- EVERYTIME she gets out of bed -- calmly, peacefully and lovingly put her back to bed. Kiss her, hug, her rub her back. Even sit or lie next to her until she falls back to sleep if necessary. Choose a key phrase to repeat to her a few times, such as, "It's night night time now. Mommy loves you. Please stay in your bed and have sweet dreams."

    You may have to repeat this ten times the first few nights, but with real consistency you should see this reduce night-time visits quickly.

  • Gift-wrapped motivation
    My sleep surveys uncovered that fact that most preschoolers can be highly motivated to make changes when offered a prize (which, I'm sure, if you have a preschooler, is no great surprise to you!)

    The sticker approach has been a popular choice. Purchase a calendar and put it in a visible place on the wall. Allow your child to put a sticker on the calendar each morning after he stays in his own bed.
    Your child's goal is to attain a certain number of stickers -- which can be whatever number you want it to be, but shouldn't be so many that your child loses interest during the wait. You may want to start off with a small number . say 3 stickers, and work your way up to ten or so. When the magic number of stickers is on the chart your child gets a prize. This can be a trip out for an ice-cream cone, a coveted toy, or a special privilege.

How long the process of change will take depends on how strong your child's need is to be with you during the night . she may feel that you are a much better prize than any toy you could offer . and isn't it glorious to be loved so much!

Elizabeth Pantley is a mom of four, a parenting expert, attachment parenting supporter and the writer of several parenting books, including The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night and The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers. Elizabeth is a regular radio show guest and frequently quoted as a parenting expert in magazines such as Parents, Parenting, Working Mother, McCalls, Redbook and on over 50 parent-directed Web sites. She publishes a newsletter, Parent Tips, that's distributed in schools nationwide.

This article is an excerpt from The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers by Elizabeth Pantley. (McGraw-Hill, 2003)

Copyright © Elizabeth Pantley. Permission to republished granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.