Simple Solution to Six-year-old’s Sleep Situation (coming into parents’ bed)

(I had to add some words that don’t start with S to help search engines find this article!)

Our son is six years old and still kind of wishes Mama would stay with him all the time he’s sleeping.  He understands that grownups don’t need as much sleep as children and have other things to do in the evening, so he long ago accepted that although one of us will lie next to him in his bed until he’s asleep, we then get up and leave him alone until morning.  We’ll come to help him if he has a nightmare, nosebleed, vomiting, etc., but in general he’s been sleeping alone all night since he was about three years old.

That changed about six weeks ago.  Nicholas is allergic to some type of springtime pollen, and his congestion and itchy eyes began waking him in the night–not bothering him so much that he couldn’t get back to sleep without another dose of medication, just enough that he was awake and noticed he was alone.  For some reason, instead of calling for me to come into his room as he used to do, he quietly got into bed with Daniel and me.

It seemed okay at first.  I actually like sleeping in the middle. 🙂  We figured it was only an occasional thing, and making a fuss over it would make it a bigger problem.  I appreciated that he was finding his comfort without waking me.

But then he started to do it every night.  As his allergies worsened, he started snoring loudly and making sudden loud shnoorfing sounds.  He also became more restless and kicky.  The weather was getting warmer, so his additional warmth in our bed was becoming a bad rather than a good thing.

Daniel, who is more sensitive to sleep interruptions than I am, began to feel seriously exhausted and to have lengthy nightmares about a whole series of annoying people waking him for stupid reasons.  Even I dreamed one night that our side lost the war and the other army marched across the bridge and made us all lie down on the sidewalks with their soldiers in between us, snoring loudly!

Finally, one night Nicholas came in and started snoring and pushing me into Daniel, so Daniel took his pillow and stomped into Nicholas’s room to sleep.  I stayed with Nicholas, even though he was bothering me, because I wanted to protect Daniel from disruption and thought that leaving Nicholas alone again would cause him to follow us again.  But after two hours of being unable to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time, I gave up and joined Daniel–who was so antsy by then that he was bothered just by my arrival shaking the bed a little.  We all slept the rest of the night after that, but everyone was grouchy in the morning!  Daniel was ranting and raving about how he really couldn’t go on this way and what did he have to do, move to Australia?!

Somehow it occurred to me to try one of those strategies that work so neatly for the people in the parenting books.  Couldn’t hurt to try, right?  I said, “Nicholas, when you wake up in the night, get a drink of water or anything you need that you can get for yourself.  Then lie down again in your bed and try to go back to sleep.  If the first number on your clock changes and you still can’t get back to sleep, then you may come and wake me and ask me to come to your room.  Don’t get into our bed.  Don’t wake me before the first number on the clock changes, unless it’s really an emergency.”  He agreed.  I went over the plan again at bedtime, pointing out the first number (the hour numeral on his digital clock) to make sure he understood.

Nicholas nodded eagerly.  Then he said, “But if it’s a dream about a monster, how about I only wait until that number [the tens digit of minutes] changes?  Because I might be sleepy enough to forget the monster, but if I’m not then the first number is too long for me to be scared.”  I was happy to agree to that!  I actually had been thinking of nightmares as emergencies that would allow him to get me right away, so I was impressed that he was willing to try resettling himself after a nightmare.  (He’s never had persistent nightmare problems like my brother and I did.)

Now, having set a rule that allows Nicholas to wake me anywhere from 1 to 59 minutes after he wakes (depending on how close to the new hour that happens to be), I expected only to reduce the number of nights he disrupted our sleep.  But it’s been two weeks, and he hasn’t waked us at all!  It seems that all he really needed was a strategy for self-reliance and some reassurance that I’m still there for him when he really needs me.  It’s not simply that he coincidentally stopped waking right after we made this rule, because one night when I wasn’t asleep yet I heard him get up for water and go back to bed.

Nicholas sometimes is quite willing to do an independent thing if we just launch the idea correctly.  In this case, when this strategy floated up from my memory (I read it somewhere), I suddenly shifted from feeling grouchy about the poor sleep to feeling hopeful about the new idea.  I told him the new idea in a cheerful, firm voice.  That’s about two zillion times more likely to work than tensely wailing, “Nicholas, you have got to get back to sleep by yourself and stop bothering us!!!” which puts him on the defensive and doesn’t give him any actual guidance about what to do!

Bonus: This gives him a way to use his clock himself.  He’s not exactly telling time, but he’s using the clock as a way to watch time passing.  Although they’ve been learning in kindergarten about telling time, and although we’ve talked about it at home often, he’s maintained a sort of stubborn cluelessness on the subject, often refusing to attempt to figure out what time it is because he knows we can tell at a glance, so why should he bother?  He also seems a bit confused about the order of digits in numbers (“Is twelve 1-2 or 2-1?”) so learning more about the speeds at which a digital clock’s digits change may help him to remember that digits farther left represent bigger numbers.

Having my child put himself back to bed at least until the hour changes works for me!

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

5 Responses to Simple Solution to Six-year-old’s Sleep Situation (coming into parents’ bed)

  1. SAHMmy Says says:

    Thanks for posting a gentle (i.e., non punitive) solution to this common problem! My 4 and 7 year old creep into stages of coming into our room at night–thankful at these times for our “marshmallow” mattress that sucks the middle sleeper into a hole: “You’ll get sucked into the marshmallow! Can I tuck you in next to Brother/Sister instead?” works for us.

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