By Elaine Ducharme Ph.D, ABPP

Most parents have known that a good routine helps kids settle down at night. But today’s parents seem to have more difficulty getting through this nightly ritual. We seem to have adopted a parenting style that wants to avoid anything that upsets our kids. If a child says I’m scared to sleep alone, parents more frequently lay down with their child until they fall asleep…instead of helping them develop better coping skills.

Once parents lay down with their kids, they are often so tired that they fall asleep. Sometimes they stay there all night. Or, if they get up and go to bed, their child seems to end up in the parents’ bed in the middle of the night. I have seen families that have a couple of kids and the family dogs or cats all in the same bed. Parents tell me they either didn’t know their children came into their bed or they were too lazy to put them back in their own bed.

What is wrong with everyone sleeping together? Well, if you want to work on keeping intimacy alive in your marriage, it helps not to to have kids and dogs in your bed.  Also, kids and pets in the bed definitely disrupt a good night’s sleep.  And the most important part is the fact that kids need to learn the skill of settling down and going to sleep on their own.

This is actually one of the easiest behaviors to change in children. But it requires parents’ full commitment and willingness to hear their kids cry or complain for awhile. If they stick to their guns the problem is almost always completely resolved in two weeks.

Here are the basic steps:

  • Establish a bedtime routine: bath, brush teeth, story time, a few minutes of a back rub or snuggles and then a kiss goodnight and leave.
  • Leave a nightlight on in the room if your child wants. The door can be opened or closed. New parents… remember not to try to be totally silent when you put your babies to bed. That way children learn to sleep even with noise in the background.
  • Let your child know how things are going to be. If your child cries let them cry it out. They may scream, try to come downstairs. But just return them to bed calmly.
  • Reward the positive…they can earn a small prize like a sticker for each night they go to bed without a fuss. Follow this with a slightly bigger prize for a week and then something special for two weeks of appropriate bedtime behavior.
  • Use the same principles for kids coming into your room in the middle of the night. Promptly return them to their room. It is okay to sit with them in their own room for a few minutes until they settle down. But be careful you don’t just climb into their bed and go to sleep. Sit in a chair or on the floor.
  • Use the reward system.  Again…2 weeks of parents being able to do this every night and the problem is solved.

If necessary, parents can put a lock on their door so children have to knock before entering. If one parent always falls asleep when lying down with the child, let the other parent take over for awhile. Take turns bringing the child back to their bed. Being able to tolerate the kids/pets whining or crying for a couple of weeks can reward you all with better rest for everyone and more time for yourself and your partner in the evening.

If you continue to have difficulty establishing a healthy bedtime routine, talk to a psychologist or other mental health professional trained to help children and families.