My daughter is 9 and headed into fourth grade — active, smart and independent in most ways (sometimes a little too much so), but for the past six months she has had a lot of trouble going to sleep at night and can only do so if my husband or I are in the room. Currently we’re taking the approach of being supportive and trying to talk through the origin of the issue with her (she can’t tie to anything in particular, just needs the soothing presence of an adult in the room). At the end of the day someone is sleeping on the floor and obviously this isn’t sustainable, or healthy, for any of us. I’ve spoken to a lot of friends and have heard many stories that are similar, so I hoped you might have some advice?
A worried and frustrated (and sleepy) MI mom
You are already doing many things right. You don’t seem to be buying into the myth that co-sleeping is damaging, while recognizing there might be some realistic health concerns and a need to explore possible behavioral, emotional and psychological roots of the problem. Bravo!
Children typically want parents there at night because you represent unconditional love and security when facing the unknown of darkness, dreams and the uncertain thoughts of an active, growing mind.
Reasons for your daughter’s sudden behavior change can be complex, and sometimes it can be difficult for parents to drill down on a specific reason; and doing so does not necessarily lead to a miracle “cure.”
That said, it is still worth considering the root cause. It is not unusual for a 9 year old to not be in touch with the reason for her sudden bedtime anxiety. She may not have the words or emotional insight to explore or express it.
Instead, consider what was happening in her life six months ago. Also, be honest with yourself about your own anxieties because children have an uncanny ability to sense our needs and try to caretake us.
Consider if from a family systems perspective: think of the behavior itself, not your daughter, as having its own goal in the family structure. Is it trying to get you and your husband closer together (or farther apart)? Does it serve to distract the family from other behaviors or problems? Or, might it serve to focus attention on your daughter for something unrelated to sleep?
There are so many paths to explore, but sometimes what helps most is a focus on the present and practical coping strategies.
Many behavioral solutions include breaking the negative cycle of sleep disruption. First, both parents must commit to the goal of everyone sleeping in their own bed every night, stressing the health benefits of a good night’s sleep while never giving up the intimacy and bonding that comes with bedtime closeness, connection and love — it just needs to happen on the parents’ terms until this cycle is corrected.
Next, get creative with modifying the bedtime routine and stick with it — this is good practice for the teen years when tougher boundaries will be tested.
Have rules about her bedtime routines and make them consistent. For example, bath, teeth, 15 minutes reading and then a hug, in the same order, every night. Avoid screens, large meals and sweets right before bed. If the child gets up, walk her back with minimal interaction and tuck her in quickly. If she yells out, comfort her with a few quick words or pats on the back — do not overdo it, as she might need to get used to having some anxiety.
If she is a “wanderer,” help by making your bedroom as unappealing as possible — no TV, other screens, or reliably interesting parent dialogue, until she is down. Some parents have found that using a sleep or dream journal is helpful. Make a list of tools for emotional regulation with your daughter: thinking about a favorite place or animal, remembering a special time and listing 10 details in her head.
WFSMIM, in cases of possible anxiety and sleep disturbance, it is always prudent to consult with your pediatrician.
You sound committed, insightful and determined — ruling out a few typical causes, redoubling your commitment to routines, and allowing your daughter to learn from a little anxiety might just help turn this cycle around.
Cindy Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. The advice offered by YFS is intended for informational purposes only and to guide you in seeking further resources if needed. The answers to questions are not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, psychological, financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. If you have a question you would like to ask Cindy to answer in this column, or if you need additional professional resources, email firstname.lastname@example.org.