Toddler Wants to Sleep in Parents' Bed
Q: My wife and I have a 2-year-old daughter who likes to crawl into our bed in the middle of the night. She's not scared. I think it's a habit from when my wife let her sleep in our bed when she was younger. We try to put her back into her bed but she starts crying. Should we continue to do this or should we let her sleep with us? I just don't want her to be 10 years old and still crawling into our bed. Is it a phase or should we nip this in the bud now?
A: It sure is warmer and feels safer to be sleeping snuggled right up against Mama and Papa in bed. This is also something that your little one got very used to doing. If you are sure that this is something you really want to change, it will take quite a bit of time and persistence, since your daughter is so happy and so used to the arrangement of sleeping with you.
When she comes toward your bed, one of you should say in a low, gentle voice (as you carry her gently back to her bed), "We need you to sleep in your own special bed, lovey." Sing soothingly, "Time to sleep in your own little bed now. Time to go nighty-night in your own little bed." Be sure to use her name a lot as you sing. After you put her in her crib, if she cries, tell her quietly that you will be resting right nearby. For a few weeks, you may need to have a sleeping bag on the floor of her room, so that two ideas become very clear to her: that you insist on her sleeping in her own bed, and that you are indeed nearby if she persists in waking a lot after you put her down again in the middle of the night. As she learns to sleep longer and longer without waking, you may be able to move your sleeping bag closer to the door of the room and eventually you will move back to your own bed for the whole night. Of course, when kids are sick or scared, they may well pad back to your room again.
Kids need to feel safe and secure above all. The parental bed feels warm and safe! Some children do not feel as secure and familiar in their surroundings even after a simple change such as a rearrangement of furniture. They may feel unsafe and tiptoe back to the safety of the parents' bed at night.
If you do better at carrying her back to her bed in a matter-of-fact way than your wife does, this may work better for the family. If one of you has more time to catch a nap during the day to make up for lost sleep perhaps during this learning time for your little girl, then perhaps that parent should be the one to carry out this plan. Having your child cry loud and long from terror, and from a feeling of being abandoned, is not a good idea at all!
Thus, changing her comfort level with the new sleeping arrangements will take time, patience, and reassurance. Some parents prefer for these few weeks to sit and hold the toddler's hand through the crib bars night after night until the little one calms down and feels safe and comfortable with these new arrangements. Be patient. Even we adults take a long time to change a comfortable old habit! Please do not start any stressful new learning, such as toilet learning, during this time of learning new bedtime habits for your daughter.
Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. She is the author of Secure Relationships: Nurturing Infant-Toddler Attachments in Early Care Settings.