Q. My nine-year-old son is still sleeping in my bed with me. He is an only child and his father left when he was three years old and, though he initially kept some contact, he has not seen his father now for a few years. Since that time he has more or less slept in the bed with me. I have tried many times to move him into his own bed, but he complains of being scared and always comes back in during the night. When I try to insist, he becomes very distressed. He says he only feels safe in my bed. I thought he would grow out of this as he got older but this has not happened – he will be 10 in two weeks so I am aware he is far too old to be in my bed. What can I do to get him to move on as I know it is not right at his age?
A. Whether to let young children share the parental bed is a controversial subject with lots of parents having strong feelings on the matter. Some advocate early independence for children in their own beds while others advocate the benefits of co-sleeping with children in the early years. Whatever the strong views, in my opinion letting pre-school children share their parents’ beds is a valid parental choice with potential benefits depending on the needs of the individual child and set-up in the family. Within families who practise co-sleeping, most children move into their own beds at their own pace by the age of three or four.
However, at nine years of age I agree with you that your son is too old to be in your bed. It strikes me that he might be “stuck” at an earlier stage in his development and he may need some support in achieving independence.
Understanding the reasons for your son’s wish to sleep in your bed
When their parents separate, young children often become insecure for a period. Their world is disrupted and this can lead to them clinging to their parents for comfort and security. They often fear that if one parent has left the family home, then the other one could easily follow. Habits like sleeping with parents can easily start post-separation and, to some degree, are helpful in reassuring children, especially in the early days. However, like all habits, they can continue beyond their usefulness.
In addition, the fact that there is just the two of you in the home and that you are parenting alone can lead to a special intensity in your relationship with your son which can make the normal developmental steps of separation and achieving independence more difficult for him. In simple terms, because there are just the two of you, it can be harder for him to pull away.
Finally, you need to take into account the fact that your son could indeed be anxious about the prospect of sleeping alone. This anxiety will prevent him sleeping and make it harder for him to settle in his room. As a result, he will need special support in managing his anxiety and developing new sleep associations in his own bedroom.
Getting co-operation from your son about moving
The first step in helping your son is to get his co-operation around the goal. Sit down and talk to him about the issue. Make sure to listen first and get his perspective and how he feels about what is going on.
Though he might be fearful about changing, on some level he probably agrees that he is too old to share a bed with his mother and that he needs to move into his own room. Try to get his agreement that he wants this goal and that you will work on it together at his pace over time.
Helping your son make the move
Once you have agreed the goal, next come up with a detailed plan about making the move at a date in the future. It can help if you could mark the move by doing up his room in some way to signify the new beginning – simply putting up a new poster or two or buying a new duvet could all help. You want to fill his room with new sleep associations that will make it a relaxing place for him to spend time before he sleeps. This can include having music, nice lighting and a few books he likes to read.
Agree with your son a relaxing bedtime routine that starts early on and which includes time in his room relaxing by himself as well as a good-night ritual with you (such as reading together or having a bedtime chat when he is in bed).
Adopt a gradual approach
If your son has particular anxiety about falling asleep alone, adopting a gradual approach at his pace can help. This might mean that for the first week you might set the goal of him staying in his room until he falls asleep but allow him to come into your room in the middle of night if he needs to until he is ready to change this behaviour in the following weeks. Some parents I have worked with put a small mattress or sleeping bag in their room and allow their child to stay there as an intermediate step.
If he is very anxious at the start, he may need a good bit of support to get asleep – and you may find it helpful to teach him some relaxation techniques and/or agree to check on him every 20 minutes in his own room until he falls asleep. See other articles on this website on managing anxiety and sleep for children.
If his anxiety continues to be an issue for him, do seek help from your local primary care or child mental-health services.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, October 2013. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.