Colleen Mulder-Seward and her husband, Rob Seward, were dying for a good night's sleep. Once their daughters got to ages 3 and 5, the Dexter, MI, couple fully (and perhaps foolishly, they now admit) expected they'd be enjoying eight hours of shut-eye again. Ah, the eternal optimism of parenthood!
In reality, Colleen and Rob would put their younger daughter, Jenna, to bed, only to see her again three hours later, throwing a queen-size fit and begging to sleep in their queen-size bed. They were way too tired to do anything but throw back the covers and invite her in.
Problem is, a threesome just wasn't their speed. "Eventually, one of us would get fed up with being kicked in the back by Jenna and go sleep in the guest room. We were tired all the time," says Colleen.
Tons of parents who didn't plan on having a family bed are finding that's exactly what they now have—and want to get rid of, says Jill Spivack, L.C.S.W., a family therapist and formerly sleep-deprived mom herself who is the cocreator of The Sleepeasy Solution. "When you're exhausted, you follow the path of least resistance," she says. "You may have tried other things, but in desperation, you pull your kid into your own bed. You may not get perfect sleep, but at least you get some sleep."
The good news: You can untrain the little monster who's taking over your bed. The bad news: It may not be pretty. Your life is not an episode of Supernanny and your family's sleep issues won't get resolved in an hour or even a day. If you really want to make the change, though, and you're prepared for tears, wails and cries of "But Mommy, don't you love me?" you'll make it through. Here's how to pull the my-bed-to-your-bed switcheroo:
First things first: Is today a good day to start? If you're in the midst of potty training, are going on vacation or are expecting a new baby, wait until things settle down. Yes, you'll have to put up with your little bed partner longer, but the sleep training will go much faster if you wait until your routine is more regular.
Once you've decided to take the plunge, start talking about your new bedtime expectations in the afternoon—that way, she'll know what to expect at lights-out. Try saying something like "Mommies and daddies sleep in their beds, and kids sleep in their own beds," says Spivack.
She also suggests making a homemade "sleepytime book"—nothing fancy, just stapled-together paper illustrated with stick-figure pictures that your child can color. If your family recently moved, for instance, and your daughter started sleeping in your bed while she got used to the new house, your story would focus on that and end with how she finally started sleeping happily in her very own bed. A picture book can help young children understand their new sleeping situation in a very concrete way.
Do your usual bedtime routine (here's help if you don't have one!), then get ready for the boot-camp—tough part.
Okay, reality check: This is where moms who couldn't stand the cry-it-out method when their kids were babies may turn back and say "Forget it." Hey, kids will eventually sleep alone (show me a teenager who wants to be in bed with Mom and Dad and I'll show you a reality show waiting to happen). But if you'd rather yours go solo more like this month than this century, you can do it—you just need to brace yourself.
In general, both sleep consultants and parents who've been there say that once you decide to start this sleep training, bed sharing needs to end entirely. No "Well, just for five minutes" or "Maybe tonight because she had a long day." That means midnight visitors get walked back to their rooms, tucked in, kissed and left behind. No extra snuggles, no drinks of water, as many times as it takes. There will be screams and sobs, and kids so resistant you'll have to carry them, wriggling and accusing all the way, to their beds. Which they will jump out of in a split second. You will start to wonder if you will ever sleep again. You will; just maybe not tonight. Keep this up until the new rules sink in.
If your child has been starting out in your bed and sleeping there all night, every night, your job is even less fun (sorry). Take a comforter into your child's room and sleep on the floor—not in her bed—all night long (double sorry). Even though a slumber party in your child's room is probably not your idea of a good time, it's a smart move in the long run. "If you're in her room when she falls asleep and then not there when she wakes a couple of hours later, she will call out or come looking for you," says Jennifer Waldburger, L.C.S.W., cocreator with Spivack of The Sleepeasy Solution. "Sleeping in her room all night pushes the reset button, so to speak, on whatever anxiety your child is having about being there alone. She can wake up and see Mom or Dad each time, then just go back to sleep."
After two or three nights, switch to sitting quietly in a nearby chair until your child falls asleep. But no talking! You want to bore your child to sleep. If she kicks up a fuss, temporarily leave the room. She'll settle down if she knows the reward is that you'll rejoin her.
Each night, move yourself farther from your child's bed—to the door, to the hallway and eventually back to your own bedroom. "If your child follows you, you want to calmly, unemotionally, walk her back to bed every time she gets up," says Waldburger.
A secure door gate—or just the idea of it—can also work wonders for certain kids. When she was 3 years old, Monica and Ron Calderon's daughter, Marquesa, started waking up around 4 a.m. and sneaking into bed with her parents. After a few nights of crowded quarters, the Tigard, OR, couple reminded little Marquesa of "the gate," the one she knew from when she was a "baby" (a few months back). Marquesa hated being corralled, so that gentle threat was more than enough to coax her back to her own bed.
The Next Morning
How'd your kid do? If not so great, keep encouraging him and reminding him of the new rules. If he made it through the night—or even made some improvements—bring on the praise. He's a big kid! He can do it! Toddlers and preschoolers, thank goodness, thrive on pleasing you.
Prizes are also generally welcomed by little kids. You could let your child pick a small "sleep treat" from a grab bag in the morning or leave one under his pillow. I admit it: I lured my younger daughter, Flora, back to her bed with prizes. Borrowing an idea from Janie Peterson, author of The Sleep Fairy, I told Flora that the Sleep Fairy (sort of like the Tooth Fairy) leaves stickers, small toys and other goodies under sleeping children's pillows. It worked like a dream. Within a week, she was in the habit of staying in bed, and the prizes weren't even a big issue.
It may take more than one tactic to entice your child into his bed. But whatever you do, be consistent and have faith! Colleen and Rob, the parents of bed-hog Jenna, stuck it out and report that now their problem is getting her up in the morning. Well, at least everyone's getting some rest.