When Kids Can’t Sleep Alone

If your child is struggling with their sleep and has a hard time doing it alone, they’re in good company. These days, it’s rare for a client stepping into my office to not have some type of sleep-related challenge, at least temporarily. Almost all children experience worries around sleeping alone at some point in their development, and most will get over this problem relatively quickly.

(And yes, sometimes bedtime-related behavior problems are less about separation anxiety or fears of ghosts and more about power struggles!)

However, bedtime fears and insomnia can absolutely be a sign of a deeper problem like depression or anxiety. Our mental health is closely linked to the quality of our sleep – most, if not all, adults can remember a time that stress caused them to toss and turn at night. Given a choice, an anxious child is always going to seek the nurturance of their parent rather than rely on their own internal sources of comfort. This is typically fine for occasional situations, but consistently demanding to sleep with a parent is a sign that a kiddo hasn’t developed their own self-soothing strategies and needs help building this skill.

What to do to get back on track

Getting kids to fall asleep alone in their bed after they’ve grown accustomed to sleeping with you isn’t the easiest process. It may mean 2-3 really rough nights for everybody, but it’s worth the challenge – you’ll get your bed back, and your child will feel more confident when they’re able to comfort themselves. Try out the Bedtime Plan below (and consider the other suggestions that come before it!)

1) Hold a family meeting to get on the same page

Discuss the problem directly in a non-shaming way. You might start with, “I know that at bedtime, you experience some scary thoughts, and you feel safer when you come to me. But I think you’d feel a lot better if we could find ways for you to feel safe in your own bed.”

See if your child has any ideas they’d like to implement into the new bedtime plan- often, they’ll have some genuinely useful and interesting suggestions! (But even if their ideas are silly, show that you’re willing to hear them out. Children are more willing to make changes when they feel involved in the process.)

2) Start a healthy pre-bedtime routine

If getting ready for bed usually looks like sheer chaos in your own home, it’s best to make some changes so that this routine feels more calming. Sending kiddos off to bed while everyone’s feeling frustrated and tense will only worsen the problem, particularly for ones who are sensitive to separating from you.

Some suggested pre-bedtime steps (you can certainly add you own and take out what doesn’t work!): getting backpack ready for school the next day, taking a bath, putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, having pleasant/positive conversation with a parent, selecting a stuffed animal to sleep with, reading a story, and turning on a night light.

Bonus: giving lots of choices during this time can help kids feel more in control! Consider creating a schedule to put on the wall so that everyone can follow along (use pictures for little ones not reading yet).

Begin the Bedtime Plan once it’s lights out:

3) Lights out, hang out

Before bedtime, do all the snuggles and chatting you like, but once it’s time to sleep, it’s important that you disengage from your child a bit. Sit quietly on their bed or floor for 5-10 minutes as they try to drift off – don’t talk or lie down with your child during this time.

2) Quiet exit

After a few minutes, silently leave the bedroom whether kiddo is asleep or not. If your child comes after you, calmly return them but do not stay.

3) Check in

Return to the child’s bedroom after 5 minutes to check on them. If they’re upset, provide reassurance from the door, but do NOT get back in bed with them, nor get pulled into a negotiation. You can say things like, “I know this hard for you. You’re safe. You can do this.” Don’t stay more than 1-2 min at a time.

4) No Demands

It’s okay if your kiddo gets tearful or upset – this is expected with a new change. However, if they yell or demand that you return to their rooms, do not do so. This might feel cruel, but remember that children must learn they are capable of soothing themselves! They may struggle to do this in the beginning, but every new skill requires practice.  

Additional points you may find helpful:

  • Do not agree to stay in the bedroom until your child falls asleep! Children MUST learn how to make the transition from wake to sleep on their own. Staying in the room until they’re asleep can actually increase nighttime wakefulness.
  • Stay calm! Try not to raise your voice if you get frustrated or anxious. You can be firm on the rules while also being compassionate about their struggles.
  • Variation: If your child is especially anxious, you can try a more gradual process, where you slowly decrease the amount of time you spend in the child’s rom each night. For example, if you normally spend half an hour sitting beside them, do 25 minutes the next night, then 20, and so on.

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