My daughter won’t sleep in her room
My daughter won’t sleep in her room

Hello Dr Justin,

I would like some advice on getting my daughter to sleep in her room. She has been sleeping with both hubby and I for five years of her life and after my second child she and her daddy sleep in another room, as the little one is in my room. My daughter complains of nightmares hence doesn’t want to sleep alone. How can we best tackle this?

Thanks, S.

Dr Justin replies:

Co-sleeping is a tremendous gift that provides our children with feelings of warmth, love and security. It can be particularly helpful for children who are experiencing nightmares, as they settle faster and feel comforted by having a parent sleep with them.

Eventually, however, mum and dad quite rightfully want their bed back! Making that happen, successfully and peacefully when your five year old is afraid and used to having your comforting presence, is a bit tricky. The following suggestions may be useful:

  • Avoid making any threats or bribes to coerce her into doing something that makes her uncomfortable.

Threats and bribes are like sticking plaster that cover a wound. They’re a quick-fix that ignores the deeper issues that may be causing pain.

  • Explain what you want and why.

Your daughter needs to know it matters to you and your husband. I’d recommend chatting about it while you’re relaxed and can focus. Perhaps you might discuss it as you lay in bed. Or you may go for a walk to the park and share your feelings.

  • Understand your daughter’s perspective.

It is likely your discussion will lead to your daughter expressing some fear. She does not want to be alone at night. She is worried about nightmares. Listen carefully to what she says. Don’t try to fix things. Just show you understand. Say things like, “you’re really worried about…” or “it makes you feel safe when…”

  • Problem solve together.

While it can be tempting to lay down the law, or say to your child, “Listen, this is just how it’s going to be from now on”, this approach rarely works.

Even when it “works”, it is often only because we have broken the spirit of our child, or been dismissive and disapproving of their feelings.

Instead, it is more useful to encourage initiative, give choices, and work on solving problems together.

You might choose to purchase a special, soft toy that will provide extra comfort. Perhaps a gentle night light might work. Maybe you might decide to go all out and completely re-decorate her bedroom to make it into a place she wants to be. You might decide you will lie in bed with her for five minutes each night as she goes to sleep. Or perhaps you’ll decide you will give her cuddles for a few minutes before you go and do the dishes.

When crunch time comes, it is likely your daughter will want your presence in spite of what you have decided together. This is where you stick to your arrangement, but do it compassionately and kindly.

You might cuddle for a few minutes and then “leave to do the dishes” – or some other task. When she gets upset, let her know you understand. Then, remind her of the conversation you had, and promise to come back and hug after the dishes are tidied. Keep your promise. But once she is asleep, go to your own room.

You’ll also want to discuss what you plan to do in the night. You may agree it doesn’t matter where you sleep at 2am as long as you’re asleep. Or you may prefer to calm her and then go back to your own bed.

The first two weeks (or thereabouts) will be the toughest to work through. But by being consistent you will soon see if this approach works.

A few other things to consider:

  • Create a clear routine you follow every night. It might include dinner, bath, songs, story, hugs, lights out.
  • Keep her room as dark as possible.
  • Make sure the room is a comfortable temperature.
  • It may help to provide some “white noise” or relaxation music to help her go to sleep calmly and without distraction.
  • Ensure she goes to sleep at the same time every night.
  • Don’t try to put her to bed before she is ready. Usually about 20 minutes before sleep time is ideal.

I tell parents so long as the kids are out of their parents’ bed by the time they’re dating, they’ll be ok.

Most children are comfortable sleeping in their own space by around age six to seven, but some take a little longer than others.

Be patient with her. Be compassionate. It may be your daughter takes a little longer than other children to sleep in her own space. Ultimately, everyone sleeping well and feeling safe is what matters most.

This article was written by Dr Justin Coulson for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz

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