Question: My husband and I lose our “alone time” every night, because our 3½-year-old daughter has been sleeping in our bed for the past three months.
But why? It’s true that she is a sensitive, clingy child, but she’s doing well in school and she hasn’t had any big changes in her life. She’s also much less jealous of her 15-month-old brother now that we spend more time alone with her and read books and play games with her before bedtime. We also turn on the dimmer lights in her bedroom in case she is afraid of the dark, and have added night lights and a fun little projector that sends cute images onto the ceiling. We’ve even promised to give her a piece of chocolate in the morning if she will stay in her own bed all night. But she wakes up and cries for me, then crawls into our bed. We are exhausted when we wake up in the morning because she often reaches out and grabs my arm in her sleep and she takes up so much space in our bed.
Is it normal for a 3-year-old to sleep with her parents? Are we missing some important signs about her developmental needs? And if not, how can we encourage our daughter to move back to her own room?
Answer: Parents come in a lot of varieties, but they don’t find their paths until they decide whether to let their children run the show or to do the running themselves. And neither will you.
Your little girl is your love and your delight, but you choose the foods she should eat because you know that a 3-year-old is too young to be in charge of herself. For the same reason, you should decide where she should sleep.
Your daughter should have some duties so she will get the stuffing she needs to stand on her own little feet. Every time you do something for her that she can do for herself, you are subliminally telling her that she isn’t good enough to do it. This undercuts her confidence and makes her more clingy — and perhaps more sensitive — than she was meant to be, which is unfair to your child.
She needs to learn how to solve problems herself and especially to soothe herself. This is the first step a child takes toward independence, and it begins when she learns how to put herself to sleep. Most children did that until the ’70s when Tine Thevenin made a case for “the family bed” in a book by that name. Co-sleeping didn’t become a fad until disposable diapers and big beds hit the market. Suddenly parents had diapers that didn’t leak and beds big enough to hold themselves and a couple of small children.
Unfortunately, they didn’t know how to get them back to their own beds, which they could have done, and you can do it, too.
Tell your daughter, clearly and calmly, that you need more sleep, that she will have to stay in her own bed and that the subject is nonnegotiable, although she’s sure to try.
Cut out the nighttime games, and don’t project images on your daughter’s ceiling. Children get edgy if they get too much stimulation before bedtime. Do sing lullabyes to your daughter, and read a couple of books including “Sleepyheads” by Sandra J. Howatt (Simon and Schuster; $17), even though the last sleepyhead falls asleep in her mother’s arms instead of the bed, where she belongs.
You should then turn on one night light (just one; it’s nighttime), and give a kiss and say goodnight. If she cries (and she will), go to her within five minutes, lay her down again, give another kiss and say, “I’m right here” when you leave. She’ll cry, again and again, in the next few hours, which you should answer lovingly and patiently and within five minutes. Don’t talk much, and take her right back to bed if she gets out of it.
If you stick to these rules, your daughter should call you less and less in the next four or five days, go to sleep a little earlier each day and be sleeping in her own bed within a week.
It may be hard to say “no” to your child during this tiring, wretched week, unless you also read a great new book called “Permission to Parent” by psychiatrist Robin Berman (Harper; $27). It will help you bring parenting back to the center, where it belongs.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns. Her next chat is scheduled for May 29.