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Encouraging your Child to Sleep Independently

QUESTION: I am a divorced mother of two young children. My son is four years old and my daughter two. My son has been sleeping in my bed for over a year now. I don't remember exactly how it started, but he became terribly frightened sleeping by himself. Bedtime became a very traumatic experience for both of us. I have made several attempts to have him sleep in his own bed. I feel terrible when people ask me about where he is sleeping, but I'm not sure what to do. I don't want him to be traumatized about going to sleep. Any suggestions? Should I aggressively pursue getting him into his own bed?

ANSWER: It may be likely that your son began sleeping with you to comfort you while you were going through your divorce. Particularly if it was traumatizing to you, your son could have sensed your needs, merging with you as a source of mutual soothing through the transition. Although this is a tempting solution in the short run, it can pose long term difficulties in adjustment and adaptation. Whether his fear is based on trauma or manipulation, it is important to help him gain a sense of mastery about his ability to sleep on his own at this point, for his sake as well as for yours.

Setting limits can be difficult when you feel guilty. At this point, it may be more the case that your son is manipulating you, than that he is truly traumatized. He needs to know that you believe in his ability to sleep in his own bed, and that no amount of crying will make you change your mind about his capacity to develop this independence.

Because he is your first, your bond to him may have a special quality of closeness. He is the child who helped you forge your motherhood. If he began sleeping with you at the time you separated from your ex-husband, he may also be filling in for the loss experienced at that time. Remaining in your bed gives him the message that he is important because you needed him for comfort. He needs to know that you do not need him in this role. It is not his job. His ability to sleep on his own will be in his best interests when he wishes to do a sleep-over with a friend or go on a camp outing. Helping him develop the ability to self-soothe is critical to his development. It also gives him a secure place in the family as a brother. Sleeping with you elevates his position in the family, separating him from his sibling connection.

It is important that he be able to sleep in his own bed because it is in his best interests, because his sister does so, and because you may want an adult partner of your own at some point, too. Should you remarry, your son would then be set up to feel rejected by you, causing difficulties with future stepfamily formation, as well.

Talk with your son about what will help him to sleep in his own bed, like his sister does. Let him know you believe in him, and you expect it of him. Establish a plan with him that helps him master his fears. A nightlight and a new special "sleeping" stuffed animal friend may be useful ways of helping him develop his confidence in himself to sleep in his own bed. Assure him that you know he will be able to do so because he is becoming 5 years old in the next year! Express certainty that this will help him adjust, and that he has the capacity to conquer his fear.

If you remain uncomfortable and unable to hold these limits with your son, seek professional guidance to explore what, if any, other events may be at the heart of his fears. Review any life events that could be the trigger for such fears when they began one year ago. Explore any possibilities that some traumatic event that you are not aware of (sexual molestation, getting lost) could have been actually traumatizing to him and pushed below his awareness. If this was the case, play therapy would be therapeutic in helping him feel safe again.

Your love for your child will be expressed in your clear boundaries and sensitive assistance. Your guilt will be resolved by addressing this problem and taking charge of the situation. Besides, why should you feel guilty when you are asking all the right questions?


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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