Q. I'm a divorced mother with a six-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy who like to sleep in my bed on the weekends. I hadn't thought much about this until a friend suggested that they are too old for this. What age is too old to sleep with parents, and is it different for boys and girls?
A. Parenting styles -- especially sleeping arrangements -- have to be adjusted to a particular family situation. What seems right to your friend might not work in your unique situation. Consider it a compliment that your children want to sleep with you. On weekends they want to make up for the missed touch time they didn't have during the week. If your divorce proceedings are ongoing, your high-touch style of nighttime parenting will help ease this transition. If you are in a joint-custody situation, sleeping with you is a wonderful way to reconnect.
Certainly children four and six years of age are not too old to sleep with parents. In many cultures throughout the world, children sleep with their parents until they are nine or ten. As a very general guide, around eight years of age is when most children naturally want their own sleeping quarters. So, you have a few more years to enjoy this arrangement before your children self-wean from your bed.
Don't worry that you are creating a habit. They will sleep on their own and, when they do, they will have a good attitude about sleep. And it's more likely they will regard sleep as a pleasant state to enter and a fearless state to remain in. With this healthy start in sleep habits, they are less likely to grow up with sleep problems, which are very common in today's society.
Expect your son to wean from your bed earlier than your daughter. Generally, it's okay to let same-sex children sleep in the family bed longer. Between six and eight years of age is when you might consider encouraging your son to leave your bed. For your current arrangement, let your son sleep on one side of you and your daughter on the other side, with you in the middle.
Since they love sleeping next to their favorite person in the whole world, it will take a bit of "marketing" to get them into their own bed and into their own room. Do it gradually. You might start by giving each child a mattress on either side of your bed. After they grow comfortable with this, ease them into their own room -- assuming you have the bedroom space. If you have a one bedroom home or apartment, it's okay to let them sleep on a mattress in your bedroom for a few more years.
Watch for modesty signs. Usually by five years of age boys and girls will start to cover themselves up in front of a parent or sibling while bathing or dressing. Take this as a clue that you also need to show modesty in front of them.
Remember, parenting in a nutshell is giving your children the tools to succeed in life. One of the most important tools is being comfortable connecting with people, being comfortable with intimacy. In over thirty years in pediatric practice, I have observed that children who sleep with a parent tend to be more comfortable with physical touch. And, I suspect, these same children will grow up being more comfortable with intimacy in general.