Q&A: His own bed!

John writes:

"Okay - nothing new or original, but it's driving us crazy:

We can't get our 4-year old to sleep all night in his own bed. We've been working on this for more than two years now. We've finally got him to the point where he will go to sleep in his own bed (eventually), but by midnight or so, he's back in bed with us.

He's got a rigid bedtime routine - dinner, toilet, bath, feed the fish, 3 books, hugs and kisses, go to sleep with audiobooks on the iPod (on speaker - no headphones). We've used bribes with mixed success and if I have to, I lie down with him in his bed until he falls asleep sometimes, but both of those seem like iffy ideas at best.

We try to take him back as soon as he gets into bed with us, but we are both so exhausted at the end of the day that a lot of the time, we don't realize that he's in our bed until a couple of hours later, when our backs give out from clinging to the edge of the bed. He's the Stubbornest Boy in the Universe (potty training has been a little slice of Heaven) and if he wakes up enough on the trip back to his bed, he gets so into the power struggle that he wakes himself up completely and then the fun REALLY starts.

We're both big.

The Boy is big.

The bed is not.

One of us is going to fall asleep at the wheel and drive into a cement truck one day on our way to or from work.  (Which may be part of his plan, because then he'd inherit half of our bed.)

Yours in total, mind-numbing exhaustion,

John"

Think about what a successful life your son is going to have with his refusal to back down. He is going to have the drive to succeed, and the will to keep going in the face of adversity. His stubbornness will serve him well in The Game of Life.

Your sleep situation right now, however, sucks.

It sounds like you've tried a whole lot of things, from bribes to lying down with him. And the problem isn't getting him to sleep in his bed initially, but getting him to stay in his bed.

It seems to me like you have three options. One is to keep going the way you are, but it sounds like you really don't want to do that, so let's not even talk about it. The second option would be to use brute force to keep him in his bed. The third option would be to try to get him involved in the plan.

The brute force option would be to barricade him in his room somehow. I think it's a bad idea for a lot of reasons, but I also know people who've felt like it was the only thing they could do. When you're that sleep-deprived for that long, you try whatever you can think of. The real kicker here, though, is that I think some kids wouldn't really mind being shut into their rooms, but the ones who are coming into your bed every night are the exact kids who would hate it. And then you're setting up a power struggle and control-based situation that's just going to end up making everyone feel horrible and eroding trust between the two of you.

Since these spirited kids need help managing their emotions and impulses, setting up an oppositional situation is just going to backfire by making things worse. Instead, you might want to see if option three works, by enlisting his help in the project of keeping him in his own bed.

It seems like there are a couple of dimensions here. The first is that you want to talk to him and make sure he understand that he needs to stay in his own bed, and why it's very important for the whole family that he does. But the other, key part to this is to get him to tell you why he doesn't stay in his own bed but instead comes into yours. Once you know that, you can try to replicate the conditions he's going for without having him come in with you. Is he cold? Maybe more blankets or a space heater are the answer. Is he scared of being alone, or just wants to be with other people? Maybe you could put a small mattress for him in your room that he could come sleep in in the middle of the night.

There could be any number of conditions that are making him wake up in the middle of the night. (Some kids at this age sleep all the way through, while others seem to wake up, so I don't think it's abnormal for him to wake up, but there also could be some specific reason he's waking up.) Until you figure that out, you really don't know what to do to make it easier for him to sleep through.

Has anyone else been through this? What did you do to help your child finally sleep through in his or her own bed?