Set a new routine to get children to sleep in their own room
Expert: Meghan Leahy holds a Master’s Degree in school counselling and is a certified parent coach.
Q: My sons, aged six and four , have been sleeping in my bed since January, when their dad left us. Given what they were dealing with, I went with it. Now they are too big and my sleep is seriously suffering. I am constantly jostled by them all night. How do I gently break this routine and get them back in their beds?
A: Every aspect of your body is affected by poor sleep and there are studies to prove it. So, how do you break this routine? Firstly, you did what you needed to do at the time, so congratulate yourself for getting this far. When children go through a trauma, being physically close to an attachment is the fastest and most soothing way for them to calm down. But as time marches on, there is a need for some emotional and physical space.
The question now is not how to break this routine, but instead how to create a new one. It’s important to remember that your boys are resilient. Children can and do move forward from a loss like this.
I am asking you to believe in your sons’ abilities to sleep on their own. Meanwhile, you need to project that you can handle your own emotions and this trauma.
Here are a few tips:
1 Be compassionate and firm. If the boys aren’t thrilled about leaving your bed, you can agree that this is scary and sad, but that it is happening because sleep is important for everyone. If you waver or start making deals, you are not going to get them out of your bed. Say: “Yes, I’m sad Daddy no longer lives with us, but I am taking care of myself, and I am here to take care of you. You don’t have to worry about mommy and I am here to help you with your feelings about daddy leaving.”
2 Get excited with the boys about redecorating their room, choosing new sheets and so on, but don’t think new bedding and a lamp will trump their desire to be near you.
3 Find a routine that fills attachment and makes room for tears. Make a schedule that outlines what is going to happen every night (bath, books, bed, a little foot rub), and stick to it. And when you turn off that light, be prepared for tears and calls to you. Your boys are not trying to manipulate you; they are simply reacting to their fear of being alone and in the dark. There is nothing wrong with this, it will just take time.
4 Go to the boys before they get out of bed to find you. I know this sounds exhausting and annoying, but it is far less exhausting and annoying than having to tuck them in again every five minutes. When you click off the light, say: “I am going to check on you in two minutes.” And keep your word. Go back in two minutes and wordlessly kiss them and smooth their covers. This small action tells the boys: “I am safe, this parent keeps checking on me. I don’t need to chase this parent down.”
5 Be okay with giving in here and there, on your terms. You are building in some fun on the weekend when you can all co-sleep, but there will also be days when you cannot keep the schedule and they are in bed with you. Do not despair. They will eventually sleep on their own.
6 No matter how the sleep process is going, celebrate your wins. Notice when the routine is going well. Highlight effort and progress. Your positivity will shine through, and the boys will be proud. Find a family member or friend who can emotionally support you – listen to you whine and cry when it is hard – and cheer you when you are tired. Also, if the children are losing some sleep, let the school know you are working on this and there may be some irritability. Good luck.