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Solve Your Big Kid's Sleep Problems

The Land Rover

Kate Nolan* of Creve Coeur, MO, starts out every night sleeping soundly in her room. But in the wee hours, she pads down the hall to her parents' bed. When she was a cuddly toddler, her mom and dad didn't mind, but now she's a gangly 7-year-old, and they resent the regular intrusions—and sleeping on a sliver of mattress as she hogs most of the bed.

Why can't Kate and kids like her stay asleep? Between cycles of light and deep sleep, it's natural to wake up from time to time. Most of us roll over and drift off again. Some kids, however, have trouble returning to sleep, perhaps because they occasionally feel too hot or cold, or have had a stressful dream.

"To help your kid learn to fall back to sleep on her own, have a conversation about it during the day, when she's less anxious," suggests Kelly Byars, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist at the Sleep Disorders Clinic of Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati. Use age-appropriate language like, "You're a big kid now, and you need to learn to sleep in your own bed. We'll all sleep better that way. So if you come into our bed before morning, I'm going to tuck you back into yours. You can still come to our room once it's light out." Talk about ways your child can soothe herself to sleep, like hugging a stuffed toy or thinking happy thoughts. And remember to follow through at night—for as many times as it takes.

"Don't be discouraged if your child's behavior doesn't improve immediately," Byars warns. "For a child who can't fall back to sleep alone, the skill has to be learned, and it may take days, even weeks of consistent practice." But if you give in to such compromises as having your child camp out in a chair or sleeping bag next to your bed, you'll never solve the problem.