Q: My almost 7- and 4-year-old boys have been sleeping in my bed since last 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, and I just don't sleep. How do I gently break this routine and get them back in their beds?
A: First of all, I am sorry for your situation. A father leaving the family is a tremendous loss, even if his character didn’t lend itself to being the best husband or father (neither of which I know). My hope is he understands the emotional and financial responsibility to his children and behaves appropriately. But one thing is sure: You cannot control other people, so let’s deal with the issue at hand.
Sleep. Specifically, your sleep.
Of the three horsemen of the parenting apocalypse (sleeping, eating and potty training), sleep is probably the most frightening. It is such a fundamental need that you can’t simply step over it or skip it. Lack of sleep messes with everything. Blood pressure goes up, weight goes up, stress goes up, anxiety goes up, irritability goes up, focus goes down, patience goes down, and the ability to stay reasonable and logical goes down. Every aspect of your body is affected by poor sleep, and there are studies to prove it. But you don’t need a study to show that poor sleep is negatively affecting you, you’re living it.
So, how do you break this routine?
First, you did what you needed to do at the time, so congratulate yourself on getting this far. When children go through a trauma, being physically close to an attachment is the fastest, easiest and most soothing way to calm them down. It is completely normal for the children to want to be near you (and you, them), and co-sleeping works. But as time marches forward and bodies grow, the need for some emotional and physical space comes into play. The question now isn’t how to break this current routine, but instead, how to create a new one.
What does the new routine look like? Do you want the boys to still sleep in your room (the gentlest choice)? Do you want the two of them share a room? Or are you thinking they should each have their own room? I don’t know what the options are. So, sit down, alone, and take a look at what you have available to you. My spidey-sense tells me that having the boys share a room would be a nice option (they have each other), but this is up to you. If you want to put sleeping bags on your floor and simply get bodies out of your bed, that is an option, too. Decide what you can realistically handle.
It’s important to remember that, yes, it is traumatizing to have a main attachment leave suddenly, but your boys are also resilient. Children can and do move forward from a loss like this, especially when they have another attachment figure — you.
Is this situation ideal? No, but life is not ideal, and humans are built to adapt to hardships. I am not suggesting that moving the boys out will be easy or fun; 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, too.
“The children may have moved into her bed because they need comfort, but developmentally, they need their mom to let them know they are okay,” says Laura Reagan, a clinical social worker specializing in trauma and attachment. “If they sense she is not okay, which is understandable under the circumstances, they may feel the urge to sleep with her so she feels safe. That sets up a potential dynamic of the children attempting to get their needs met by meeting mom’s emotional needs.”
In short, what once felt safe and needed can become its own issue.
After you’ve decided what you want the new sleeping arrangement to look like, call a meeting with the boys. They are young and won’t understand the full picture, but you can say something like, “I loved us all going to sleep in my bed, and now that your legs are getting so long, we need to branch out a bit. You are going to sleep in this room over here Sunday through Thursday, and Friday and Saturday nights you are in here with me! Weekend slumber parties!” Your boys may smile, they may cry, they may reject this idea outright, or they may happily set up their room. I don’t know what will happen, but we have to start somewhere.
Here are a couple of tips:
1. Be compassionate and firm. If the boys aren’t thrilled about leaving your bed, you can absolutely agree that this is scary and sad. And yet, it is still happening, because sleep is important for everyone. If you waver or start making too many deals or entertaining too many negotiations, you are not going to get them out of bed. Period. Reagan suggests saying, “Yes, I’m sad that Daddy doesn’t live with us anymore, 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.” Period.
2. Get excited with the boys about redecorating their room, picking out new sheets, etc., but don’t think that some new bedding and a lamp will trump their desire to be near you. Children need to feel connected, so when it comes time to go to bed, there is nothing that becomes more important than being 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. The boys may be clicking along, but when you turn off that light, be prepared for tears and calls to you. They are not trying to manipulate you; they are simply reacting to their fear of being alone and in the dark. Especially after they have been with you for a while, they are going to be even needier. There is nothing wrong with this, it will just take time.
4. Commit to going 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 re-tuck them in every second. 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. You are in this parenting gig for the long haul, so don’t get caught up in giving in or giving up. You are doing the best you can. That’s enough.
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 (i.e. listen to you whine and cry when it is hard) and cheerlead you when you are tired. Also, if the children are losing some sleep, let the school know that you are working on this and there may be some crankiness. Good luck!
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