How to get our 3 year old back into his own bed?

slippers croppedQ: We have a little boy who was three last January who is sleeping in his own bed but now wakes up every night and comes into the bed with us. We are persistent and bring him back to his own bed. But he gets upset unless one of us stay with him as he drifts off the sleep. Most times we end up sleeping in his bed, which is not great. Because he is not in a cot and sleeps in his own bed, he can easily jump out of his bed and run into our room. Putting a gate to his bedroom door could be an option but this is unlikely to go down well . Any advice about how to resolve things would be helpful.

A: Once child ren are mobile and able to climb out of the bed, a common sleep problem is for them to leave their room and seek you out when they wake at night. This can happen during the middle of the night when they wake or also just after they are put to bed and before they get to sleep.

Many parents can get caught into a pattern of constantly taking their child back to his bed, only for him to come straight back out a few minutes later, leading to a bedtime battle. Some parents end up sleeping alongside their child (as you are doing) as a way of settling them, but this of course may be disruptive to your sleep and not something you want to do in the long term.

Maybe let him come into your bed at night?
Before deciding how to respond, it is worth taking a moment to think about how much of a problem it is for you as parents. For example, a significant number of parents allow their preschool child into their bed at night, accepting that he will grow out of this habit in his own time; for others, this is too disruptive and they work hard at getting a routine established whereby the child learns to self-settle and stay in his room.

If you decide to change the habit, the good news is that there is a lot you can do to help your child learn to settle by himself. Unlike most one- or two-year- olds, at age three, children can understand routines when they are explained and can begin to make choices about how they behave. You could opt to put a child gate on his door, although this could mean that he gets out of the bed and calls you from the gate instead and may not teach him in the long term about self-settling.

Gradually teaching him to settle in his own bed
Generally, I would recommend adopting a gradual process of teaching your son to stay in his bed at night. If you currently lie with him to help him settle, start with this and then gradually withdraw, perhaps to a mattress on the floor or a chair in a room or back to your own bed, depending on what he can tolerate.

In addition, over time you can gradually reduce the amount of support you give him to settle; for example, instead of lying with him, maybe you can just tuck him in or even better you can give him a favourite toy to cuddle or encourage other soothing behaviours he can do himself. This gradual withdrawal method is difficult to try in the middle of night when you are tired and it is recommended to first try it during the bedtime routine when you have more time and energy to see it through.

Once you get your child used to settling himself at bedtime, it becomes much easier to deal with night-time waking.

Helping your son to learn the time
A particular challenge with night-time waking is that preschoolers can’t tell the time and don’t know when it is morning (especially coming into the summer), so they come into their parents in the night to check if it is time to get up. To address this, it can help to have blackout curtains so it appears as night during bright mornings. You can also alter a digital clock to make it easier to read for a preschooler by covering the last digits with a sticker and only having the hour digit visible. Help your son recognise a ‘6’ or a ‘7’ and say that this is the signal for morning time.

Help your son to learn the routine with pictures
You can also prepare your son for the new bedtime and night routine using a picture chart, whereby the steps of the routine are described in a simple set of clear pictures that your child can easily understand – you can draw out the pictures (and get your son to colour them in) or take them from magazines or even take photos of your child at the various steps to make it very clear what is expected.

The routine can include bedtime steps such as washing teeth, putting on pyjamas, reading a nice story and then cuddling your son down to sleep, then night-time steps such as a picture showing your son waking at night, but staying in his bed and cuddling his teddy to get back to sleep.

The chart should finish with a nice rewarding end such as your son waking in the morning refreshed and gaining a star for staying in his bed all night.

You can also include a natural reward like having special cuddle time in the morning, whereby your son is allowed into your bed for a 10-minute cuddle before getting up. The key to making the chart work is getting your son motivated and involved and to ensure he receives plenty of praise for learning to stay in his room at night.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, April 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.