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When Your Child Won't Sleep in His Own Bed

When Your Child Won’t Sleep in His Own Bed

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I’ve got a completely and totally stubborn, insomniac 5-year-old boy who absolutely refuses to sleep in his bed. No matter how early, or how routine his bedtime schedule, he quietly waits for my husband and I to fall asleep before escaping his room to crawl into bed with us. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that he will stay up as late as this requires, which means sometimes after midnight. This leaves a very cranky boy in the morning and I’m worried about the consistent lack of sleep. When asked why he won’t stay in his bed, he claims he is scared and matter-of-factly declares that he needs to sleep with another person in the room or he won’t sleep at all. Sometimes he will sneak into his older sibling’s room down the hall. I would have no problem with this, except that they always play games/bicker/whisper/giggle/fight until late into the night (seriously, they’ve been up past 1am before), leaving them both exhausted.

We tried giving up and just allowing him to start the night sleeping in our bed just so he would just fall asleep at a normal time. I figured if it was inevitable, I should just give in for now so he could get some decent sleep. The problem here is that older sibling gets incredibly jealous and claims to be scared to sleep on the second floor all by his lonesome. Suddenly, older sibling becomes the escape artist constantly trying to get crawl into our bed, which cannot comfortably hold the 4 of us – particularly when our German Shepherd tries to join the party.

Added to all of this, of course, is the fact that husband and I are totally and completely wiped out at the end of a long day, and don’t have the mental faculties to deal with this.

In the past we tried positive rewards to keep him in bed. Those efforts started okay once upon a time, but 5-year-old has wised up to the fact that the positive rewards don’t last (because, you know how it goes, after a few weeks, everyone stops remembering to put the stickers on the chart or to take the kid to the dollar store bin for the prize and the whole thing unwinds).

Do you or your readers have any helpful tips to keep our 5-year-old in bed or to make him calm enough to actually fall asleep on his own? Is it safe to lock him in his room? To lock our bedroom door? Do I stay outside his room and police him all night? Is there an effective punishment that will work? (Past efforts to take away screen time or sweets haven’t worked).

-Exhausted

The root of the problem (and hopefully the path to your solution) is right here: “When asked why he won’t stay in his bed, he claims he is scared.”

That’s probably not just a claim. That’s a fact. And that’s what you need to focus on, rather than the resulting nighttime antics. Once you help him cope with and eventually overcome his (very real, very normal) fear of sleeping alone, those antics will more than likely cease on their own. Or you’ll be able to successfully re-implement the positive rewards or lost privileges — right now, there’s nothing you can offer (or take away) that’s a bigger deal than his feelings of fear. Or his fear of those feelings of fear, which is why he’s pushing himself to stay awake for hours and hours in order to avoid having a nightmare or worry about whatever specific “thing” he’s afraid of.

So first order of business is to get him to elaborate on exactly what he’s scared of. Does he have bad dreams when he sleeps alone? Is he afraid of the dark, scary nighttime noises,  or that there’s a monster/wild animal/bad guy in his room? Get him talking, or have him “act out” bedtime with some toys and see what he makes the stand-in toy for himself do once the Mommy and Daddy toys say goodnight and shut the door.

Once you figure out what specifically he’s scared of, offer him some kind of coping tool or “defense” against that fear. Let him sleep with a flashlight, listen to his favorite music, give him a spray bottle of “monster spray” or some other “armor” he can safely wear in bed to feel more empowered. Read books that speak to his specific fear, like There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, There’s a Monster at the End of This Book, Sweet Dreams for Sydney, The Dream Jaretc. (Or — cough cough shameless plug — customize your own copy of my Twigtale book Everybody Gets Scared, using photos of him and his own room, own bed, etc.)  (And feel free to ping me if you’d like specific ideas on how to customize the text for him, once you figure out if it’s a nightmare/dark/monster fear.)

I personally wouldn’t ban him from seeking out another person, at least at first. Just ask him to at least TRY his new coping tool first, but reassure him that you are always going to be there and available to him in case of a nightmare or other anxiety. Knowing that your bed is an option — albeit not a every night, preemptive sort of thing — might be comforting enough to encourage him to TRY falling asleep on his own.

And once he’s at least TRYING, you can reinforce it with a reward system. Just make it something easily sustainable, like an extra 15 minutes of screens or new (free) game app download, or a piece of candy from a GIANT economy bag you only have to buy once.

Here’s my personal anecdote, so we can end on a hopeful note: My four-year-old also has frequent bad dreams and ALSO developed the habit of sneaking in to sleep in our bed or his brother’s night after night after night. It was absolutely a fear of nightmares (vs. the dark or a monster/bad guy thing) and he genuinely believed that being in bed with another person was the ONLY way to keep them from happening. So we had to correct and redirect that belief. We read him a bunch of books about bad dreams, where they come from, and what you can do about them to turn them into “good” dreams. We appointed a special toy as his “guardian” against bad dreams who would sit on the end of his bed and “keep watch,” and let him sleep with his favorite hat on as “bad dream armor.” He was SUPER skeptical but gave it a try, and sure enough, he had a couple nightmare-free nights in a row.

(We also started paying more attention to what TV shows the boys were watching before bed — they get one cartoon after dinner and take turns selecting a show, and we figured out there was a direct correlation between Ike’s nightmares and Spongebob Squarepants. So that one was banned from the pre-bedtime rotation and it made a HUGE difference. So if your son’s older sibling is ever in charge of the TV remote, take note.)

After that, we were able to make a deal with him: He has to start out the night in his own bed, and he has to fall asleep there. IF he has a bad dream, he can come sleep with us or his brother (who luckily has a double bed and sleeps like the dead). Early on there were certainly a few times he probably gamed the system with a false claim of a bad dream, but now he makes it through the night on his own about 90% of the time. We also allow brother bedroom “sleepovers” on non-school nights where they can sleep in each other’s room, but I check on them very frequently to make sure they are actually in bed and settling down. (They can read and chit-chat but no getting out of bed to play Bionicles or whatever.)

If he comes to sleep with us, there’s no talking — don’t ever ask for details about the bad dream at night, as that’s when it’s the most vivid and has the most “power” over your child. Instead, I silently let him lie down and go back to sleep, and then eventually one of us will carry him back to his bed once he’s fully out (he never fails to wake one or both of us up with rolling/wiggling/kicking). I really think the transfer back to his room is an important bit, because he gets comfort when he needs it, but then wakes up successfully in his room, on his own, without the nightmare ever returning.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • Alexia

    Something that helped me as a child, that may be of some help here too, is a cot in your room. I simply needed to know someone was close. I didn’t have to be in the same bed. That way everyone still has their own space but little guy gets the comfort he needs. I know extra stuff in bedrooms can take up precious space but Amazon sells a portable, collapsible cot that we often use on trips. Good luck, mama!

    • MJH

      I slept in a sleeping bag on my parents’ floor. Easy to put away!

  • Jodie

    Oh my gosh, you could be writing about my middle daughter. Seriously…I’ve been meaning to write this letter.  But then we had a breakthrough.

    Ours started out as genuine fear (husband let her watch xfiles one day while I was asleep with a newborn.  Seriously.). Which then morphed into ‘heyyyy, this sleeping with people thing is pretty awesome.)  She’s always been a natural night owl but the bedtime was getting ridiculous even with us letting her sleep with us. Which would then demand a nap which would make her less tired….

    Anyway, we found out her currency was not having to nap. I just told her she could not nap as long as she fell asleep in her bed without us having to come back in. She was welcome to join us, but a late bedtime meant a tired girl and naps make up for that. 

    That was all it took

  • Audrey

    Does your 5 yr old have a good relationship with your GSD?  When I was little my GSD was allowed to sleep in my room to “keep watch” over me in case of monsters/bad dreams/etc.  It was a win for me (not alone), a win for my GSD (sleeping on the bed), and a win for my parents (sleeping in their own bed SANS CHILD).  

  • IrishCream

    If fear of the dark is an issue, but you’re worried about a nightlight or flashlight being used to aid in staying up late and playing, we’ve had success in storing toys outside the bedroom. In our house toys live in the playroom (or in a box in the living room when we had a teeny NYC apartment), and the bedroom is only for stuffed animals and books. It removed some of the tempation to use the nightlight as an excuse to play.

    Although frankly, now that my older daughter can read, we may have to move the books out of the bedroom. There was quite a stack of books by her bed this morning that wasn’t there when she went to bed last night…

    • Jenna

      What is a GSD?  I have never seen that acronym and Google isn’t helping.  I am curious!!

  • Renee

    A general thought on the nature of nightmares and the physical influences.

    It took me almost 25 years to figure it out, but for me (and confirmed now for hubs as well) nightmares are almost always triggered by an inbalance in temperature.  For instance the blanket is covering the bottom half of my body resulting in OMG TOO HOT, and the top half of my body is FREEZING.  Don’t know if it would help with your child – but I’ve found older daughter will often wake with nightmares when it’s a weird temp imbalance in the house, her blankets are askew, or she’s chosen that night to sleep horizontally across the bed as opposed to vertically.  We are mindful now of pajamas that can mitigate too hot/too cold combos.

    • Ellen

      I have nightmares if I get too hot while sleeping. I don’t know if it happened when I was a child, but it definitely does now as an adult.

    • German Shepard dog

  • Elizabeth

    I don’t know what you are doing at bedtime now, but when my daughter was five she really needed someone to stay with her to fall asleep. The rule was I would lay down with her but lights out and no talking. I would read a book on my iPad and play white noise or quiet music. Sometimes when she woke up in the night she would still sneak into our room (which we were okay with) and gradually it became less and less. When she was five she needed to actually lay on my arm to sleep and then we just gradually pushes it back (first head on her own pillow, then me sitting on the end of her bed, then me staying for just ten minutes ect.). By the time she was six she could fall asleep on her own, but even at seven she will occasionally creep into our bed late at night. I get the older sibling jealousy. I made a pact with my older son that if she was taking up too much of his time with mom at night that he could stay up a few minutes later with me (usually on Friday or Sat night).

  • Rayne

    What about putting the kids in the same room? It takes a little while for them to get settled into a new bedtime routine, but I found it VERY helpful to both kids sleep to have them in the same room. We had enough room for 1 twin and 1 queen so they could sleep together or apart.  It lasted until my oldest turned 10 and wanted his own space.

  • alexa

    My 4 year old has always slept better with people and still sneaks out of bed at night to get in bed with me. Usually her dad puts her back to bed. Point being she will fall asleep very quickly if she’s touching or cuddling someone. She hates / fears sleeping alone.

    When she gets put to bed she’ll occasionally go to sleep on her own but often she’ll need someone to lay down with her for a while (with the caveat of no talking). She’s also scared of the dark and the hallway light needs to be on until she’s asleep. The laying down with her at night calms her down and helps settle her more than anything else.

  • Cassie

    I gave my son an old handkerchief of mine. I told him that I’d had it so long (since 8th grade), that it was just like having me with him. That worked for a while. When he had a nightmare, I would just tell him I needed to “recharge” it. I’d wash it, and then keep it on me for a while. 

    That worked, but the handkerchief got lost in his bedding a lot. Recently, I just gave him one of the hair ties that I always have on my wrist. Since his wrists are small, it is like a bracelet and doesn’t pinch him or anything, and it doesn’t get lost. It’s been working pretty well. 

  • Dan

    Something that really helped me was a) listening to storybooks on tape as I fell asleep and b) having a special rhyme my parents said and that morphed into something I could say to myself (I will not be scared of vampires, monsters or scary ghosts type thing) and that made it feel safe while giving me something I could do for myself when I woke up in the night, plus I could put the tapes on again so I wasn’t going to sleep alone.

  • Sleepless In Cinci

    I was the OP on this column https://alphamom.com/parenting/childrens-bad-dreams-and-getting-to-the-root-of-th
    e-fear/  
    Amalah’s suggestions were super helpful-especially accepting that this was a legitimate fear. Two big things that have helped us when anxiety has cycled up-knowing that he could come to us IF he had a nightmare, and this CD at bedtime: http://www.amazon.com/Sleep-Well-Kids-Relax-Bedtime/dp/B00CWKGLJU/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1460053737&sr=8-3&keywords=janet+montgomery+sleep+well (I should be getting royalties on this CD by now, I’ve raved about it to so many parents). 
    Both helped reduced his pre-sleep anxiety; calmer at bedtime means less likely to have nightmares. 

  • Lisa Y

    My middle daughter has always had a hard time falling asleep, but after my dad passed away last summer, she started panicking at bed time and would scream about being scared. It was so stressful for everyone. We still had our toddler mattress so we put that in the floor in our room and let her go to sleep in there, which helped her because we were in the living room right outside the door. Her sisters protested but we told them everyone gets what they need and middle daughter NEEDED to be in our room. After a few weeks we moved her in with her younger sister (with time outs if they didn’t get quiet) and said she had to fall asleep in there but could come in our room if she woke up, which she did every night for months. Most of the time we didn’t even know she came in until we saw her on the toddler mattress in the morning. She has now been sleeping through the night in the room with her sister for at least a month. At the beginning it felt like a CRISIS, but she just needed some time and a gradual process to get over the fear.

  • Emily

    I had a hard time with nightmares as a child (as did my husband) and what really seemed to work was books on tape or music. If we woke up, we could turn on the headphones (we both shared a room with our sibs so no loud noises) and that usually helped us fall back asleep. To this day, I have trouble falling asleep in really quiet rooms and usually have something playing in the background to help me turn off my brain and settle down. 

  • Melisa

    So Im late to the game on this one and OP may never see it but if anyone else does heres my two cents. I have an insomniac, high-anxiety 7 year old. She cannot sleep by herself. We wore ourselves out trying. At about 4 and a half we moved her into her brother’s room. Yes the first few nights were filled with 1000 warnings to lay down and go to sleep but the fun wore off pretty quickly and now it only takes about 20 minutes of whispers and giggles to finally settle themselves down. Dont know if thats an option for you.

    This didnt entirely fix her not-sleeping, just the terror of being alone, but what finally sealed the deal was a post Amy did about getting Noah a weighted blanket. I didnt even know they existed. After getting some more details I ordered one. That thing has been a miracle! She went from taking 2 hours to fall asleep (being in her brother room at least kept her in bed) and waking at least once a night to come see me, to all night sleeping 9 out of 10 nights within about 3 days of having it. That thing was a life saver. So if none of the above do the trick maybe look into the blankets.

  • Brianne

    We have been dealing with my sons sleeping issues for years. We have had him sleep on our floor and we are at our whits end. We find ourselves screaming and getting frustrated. He’s 8 and I’m done with the issues. I need to serious advice.