Dear David Coleman: My five-year-old won't sleep on his own - is it because I've mollycoddled him?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. We have three children. Our youngest is a boy aged five. We both work full-time. Our son benefits from being the "baby" and also the only boy, so I admit I may mollycoddle him at times. He has developed a fear of being alone and doesn't want to be on his own at any time, day or night. One of us has to lie with him to get him to sleep. He wakes repeatedly and won't go back to sleep unless one of us is lying with him. At this stage I feel he is waking more out of habit than fear, although he does get nightmares. How can we help him sleep through the night?
David replies: Dealing with our children's sleep issues is often one of the most challenging aspects of parenting. Typically it is because their disrupted sleep disturbs our own, leaving us tired (and possibly cranky) and with less and less energy to invest in resolving the problem.
So, I could imagine that you and your husband are probably exhausted with the regular interruptions to your own sleep. It can be hard then to think clearly, and hold onto the patience required, to help him sleep independently of you.
Before you focus on his sleep, you might want to think about your family circumstances right now, and why he might be as anxious about being alone as you describe him to be.
Are your work schedules consistent and predictable? Might he experience a lot of uncertainty about when you will or won't be around?
Has he started primary school, and has he fully settled into it yet? Many children find the transition to "big" school quite difficult and it takes them a long time to settle. Has this move changed his childcare arrangements?
Have there been any other big family changes that may have disrupted things for you or for him? He sounds like he just needs a period of real stability and certainty to help ground him and reassure him.
There may be things you can do to make life more predictable and routined for him. Unpredictability is often anxiety-provoking for children and can lead to greater clinginess, nightmares and general distress.
Even if his disturbed sleep is more habit-based than anxiety-based, it will still help him if you can create a greater feeling, for him, of being secure, safe and comfortable at night.
The fact that he seeks you out, at night, and insists on you or your husband being with him shows that he does rely on you for a lot of that comfort and security. That is perfectly appropriate for a five-year-old.
Rather than focusing on getting him into independent sleep right now, you might want to focus more on the quality of your relationship with him. Perhaps he just needs something more from you than he feels he is getting?
I could imagine, for example, that if you are both busy parents, working outside the home and have two older children as well, that the night is the best, or only, time, when he feels he gets some closeness and connectedness with either or both of you?
While he may be five, it is okay for him to still really need you. One option is to allow him to sleep in your bed with you. If you have the space, he will probably sleep quite soundly and feel very secure, helping to reduce his anxieties more generally.
Another option is to put a mattress on the floor of your bedroom for him. This gives you and him the independent space, while giving him the proximity to you that he might need just now.
When his sleep settles and you consider moving him to his own room again, it will be important to do it in a slow, gradual way. A sharp shock of your withdrawal, might set him back further, distressing him too much, such that it overwhelms his coping.
Generally, I recommend that parents slowly reduce their proximity over weeks and months. Going from a shared bed, to lying on the bed outside the covers, to sitting beside the bed touching your child, to sitting without touching, to moving further from the bed, eventually being outside the room as they fall asleep. It takes time, but it works in a gentle way for you and your child.
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