Does you toddler end up in your bed at night, after having started the evening in his own bed? If this is becoming a habit, here’s why it could be happening, and how to deal with the problem.
Why your bed appeals to your toddler
Toddlerhood is a life stage where your child experiences a real leap in her motor, cognitive and social skills – not to mention a growth in her desire for independence. Yet he may be experiencing feelings of insecurity, too. And let’s face it, what better way to feel safe and assured than snuggling up in bed with mum and dad?
Reeta, mum to Jobe, 2, says that her son started wanting to sleep in her bed when he hit 18 months. He had just been moved from a cot to a bed. “In the middle of the night I’d find Jobe next to our bed, trying to wake me up. He just wanted to lie against me. But once he was in our bed, I was conscious of his every breath and move, which meant I could never get a decent night’s sleep.”
“A child finds skin-to-skin contact rewarding and beneficial,” says Claire Halsey, a clinical psychologist and parenting expert, “but it doesn’t have to be done at night time. Toddlers are ready to sleep alone.”
Why you need to deal with the bed sharing problem
If bed-sharing isn’t your chosen family formula, then letting your child rule the routine could be detrimental to your relationship and your confidence as a parent.
Willpower at the ready
Clinical psychologist and parenting expert Claire Halsey says that if you really want to put an end to your toddler’s bed-sharing habit, you’ll need to be determined. “It takes willpower – and probably a few tantrums, too – but the alternatives aren’t very appealing, especially in the long term,” she says.
“We recently had an email from parents of an 11 year old who screams every night until they let him into their bed,” says Mandy Gurney, co-founder of Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic. “It comes down to this: don’t let your child sleep in your bed if you don’t want them to stay there.”
How to handle the problem
So, let’s get practical. What’s the best way to handle this situation?
Remember that this isn’t going to be a one-step, overnight change. Your toddler is used to sleeping in your bed, even if he starts off the night in his own. It’s a routine that’ll take time to alter. You need to plan the change without him knowing at first.
1. Start by encouraging your toddler to play in his bedroom, and particularly on his bed, before he actually sleeps there.
2. Then, pick a night when he’ll start to sleep there and explain that he will be sleeping there all night. The chances are he’ll feel strange in his own bed at first, so expect him to want to get back into your bed for a few weeks.
3. Each time he appears in your room, patiently take him back to his own bed. Remind yourself: this will suit everyone, eventually.
Dominic, aged 4…
“Dominic started climbing out of his bed when he was about 18 months old,” says Maria, 42, mum to Dominic, 4. “Every night, around 1am, he’ll come into our room. He doesn’t make any other sort of fuss; he just climbs in and settles down between us. If we pick Dominic up and take him back to his own bed, he may cry a bit. Usually, we manage to settle him, but he’ll come back in again and again. Eventually, we just give in and let him stay with us because we’re so desperate for a bit of sleep. In fact, his dad tends to end up sleeping in the spare room!”
Children’s sleep consultant, Melissa Bielecki, says, “Most little ones do wake up and feel anxious at a certain stage, and even though the anxiety passes, the habit stays. By Dominic’s age, it’s so ingrained that the only way to tackle it is to set aside four or five nights in which you’re determinedly settling him every time he stirs. Don’t chat to him about it and don’t use bribery. Just say, ‘Come on, into bed’. Be firm but fair. Never shout, but do try to create a different habit, and be consistent every night.”
Bed-sharing caused by nightmares
“When Jesse was 2, she started to have nightmares so I’d let her get into our bed,” says mum Natalie. “I thought it was the right thing to do. Her dad, Nic, would go and sleep on the sofa! Jesse soon mastered the art of melodramatics.”
You naturally want to reassure your toddler, but also need to avoid encouraging those Oscar-winning performances, so it’s always best to do the soothing and straight-talking in your toddler’s room.
“Don’t belittle your child’s fears, but don’t promote anxious behaviour,” says Halsey. “Say, ‘There are no monsters in our house, so we’re going to have a big cuddle with teddy and we’re going back to sleep.’”
Tell me more about dealing with toddler nightmares
What to do when your child is sick
“If your child is ill, stay with her in her room if you feel you should,” recommends Mandy Gurney, co-founder of Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic. “Then, as soon as she’s well enough to be on her own, go back to your usual routine.”
“Barnaby slept in his own bed for two years, but when he was poorly with flu, all he wanted was to be in my arms,” says Sally, 32, mum to Barnaby, 3. “He was listless but wakeful at the same time, so I camped out next to him in his room. I had to move my mattress a little further away every night to make my eventual escape!”
Tips to get your toddler sleeping in her own bed
- Make your toddler’s bedroom cosy and child-friendly – not a junk room you wouldn’t want to spend any time in
- Let your toddler take something cuddly to bed – a soft toy or even the T-shirt you’re wearing
- If your toddler can creep into your bed without you noticing, put a cowbell on his door handle
- If your child comes into your room at night, be firm. Take him back to bed and say again, “You sleep in your own bed now. You’re not to get out of bed.”
- Get some perspective – stand back and look at what’s causing the night waking. Address that during the day rather than leaving it until the next time she appears at 3am
- Be consistent. You and your partner have to be united on whether or not you let your toddler come into your bed in the night. Discuss in advance which one of you is going to get up as you won’t have a very civilised debate in the middle of the night!
What is gradual withdrawal?
This starts with you sitting on your child’s bed and then moving gradually further away until your child no longer needs you to be present to get to sleep. This dissolves the sleep association she has with you.
Obviously, results with gradual withdrawal may take longer than techniques like controlled crying.
What MFMers say about bed-sharing toddlers
“Don’t give up, persistance will pay off.. Have you tried getting her so exhausted that when you put her to bed she falls asleep? Or put a stairgate on her doorframe so she can’t get out the bedroom.” Zoe
Another MFMer says, Marie: “It’s good to know that I’m not the only one with a 2 year old that wakes during the night – the mums i’ve met at toddler groups all say how their kids sleep all night long. It’s not want you want to hear when you look and feel shattered.”