I plan to use my new blog to answer some of the sleep questions I receive from parents. Here's one question that comes up often (and I have a four-year-old of my own, so I can relate).
Malia, My four-year-old son keeps waking up scared at night, and wants to stay in my bed. He sometimes just climbs right in. If I keep taking him back to his own bed, he continues to wake up throughout the night. Any suggestions on how to handle this? Thank you!
Becky, this is a situation that many—if not most—parents find themselves in at some point. Rest assured, it’s fixable! But before you work on the actual behavior, ensure that overtiredness or environmental issues aren’t contributing to his waking. Is his bedtime age-appropriate, his routine consistent and soothing, and his room dark, quiet, and cool? If so, move on to correcting the behavior.
He is persisting in this behavior because his actions are being rewarded. In this case, I don’t think that sleeping in your bed is the reward; he really just wants to get out of his room and interact with you. So to nip this habit in the bud, you need to minimize the rewards he receives when he leaves his room at night.
To do this, take him back to his room swiftly when he wakes. Avoid engaging him in conversation. In fact, try to avoid having him leave his room at all. You can place a bell on his door—or even loop a bell collar made for cats around his doorknob—to alert you when he leaves his room. There are special door alarms made for this purpose as well. (I’m not paid to endorse them, by the way. But for some kids, traipsing through the house at night is a significant safety issue, so these alarms can come in very handy for parents.)
He may protest going back to his room and try to leave again. (P.S. This is where many parents give up and give in.) In this case, I recommend that a parent remain with him in his room until he is sleeping. You might balk at this part, I know. But it is easier to "wean" a child off having you in his room, than it is to get him out of your room if he takes to sleeping in your bed.
Once he is consistently remaining in his room after you take him back there at night, gradually shave minutes off the time you are spending in his room. Soon, you will be able to just take him back into his room and leave. Soon thereafter, he will accept that he will not get the "reward" of getting out of his room and stop trying to leave. If you are very consistent, I would expect good results within a week.
When things get back on track, don't slip back into old habits. Make a general household rule that any nighttime parenting or nighttime reassurance that needs to occur will happen in the child’s bedroom, not yours.
Thanks for the question!