How do I get my 6 year old son to sleep in his own bed?
June 18, 2014 10:04 AM   Subscribe

My son has been sleeping in my bed since he was a tiny infant. He's nearly six now. So how can I gently and kindly get him to sleep in his own bed, in his own room? A few more pertinent details follow below.

Except for a brief few months when my son was in the 12-18 month range, he has always slept in the big bed. Cosleeping with a baby is all fine and well (well, let's be honest, not always), and even with a toddler it's doable (and sometimes not), but he's nearly 6 years old now and I am starting to want my bed back. He and I have talked about it and he's not enthusiastic. What makes this harder is that his father and I separated nine months ago and while relations between the two of us are really quite civil --friendly, even-- it remains a fact that the little guy is going through the sadness and upheaval of watching his parents divorce. When his father was in the picture, it was the three of us in the bed, and when his father moved to the couch, it was just my son and me. Now his father is out of the house entirely, my son is nearly six, and while I recognize that he'll likely want to go to his own room eventually (before puberty hits, please God), I can't help but feel that it's time for Mama to get her bed back. I take enormous pleasure in the fact that my son is an independent person, with his own ideas and opinons and quirks, and part of me would like to foster more of that *and* foster my own independence by recovering my bed. In the interest of being fully honest and thus getting useful advice, I must also say that I'm also motivated by the fact that I have a boyfriend who someday —NOT IMMEDIATELY, I hasten add— will likely be staying over, or with whom I might—NOT IMMEDIATELY— want to live with. I have absolutely no intention of making a little boy who's already going through a tough time have to deal with more upheaval right now, and as far as the boyfriend overnights or possible cohabitation goes, I'm imagining this *maybe* happening anywhere from six months to a year from now. But if it's ever going to happen, I need to lay the groundwork now. So does anyone have any concrete advice on how to go about this in a kind, humane, and thoughtful way?
posted by pleasant_confusion to Human Relations (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I went through a phase at about this age in which I didn't like sleeping in my bed and would often go into my parents' room in the middle of the night to sleep there. This was, as you might imagine, rather annoying for my parents.

Their solution was pretty simple. At my bedtime they would tuck me in, then my dad would lay on the floor next to my bed until I fell asleep. Once I was asleep, which was usually pretty quickly, he'd go back out into the living room to hang out with my mom before their bed time. He spent less and less time in my room doing that, until eventually just being tucked in was sufficient. I think it took some time (months, not sure how many), but it did work.

As I recall this was also when Wiggle Baby, a game that involved schooching along on the floor on our stomachs, was born. So I guess maybe just making bedtime fun instead of sad could be helpful.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:18 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

When we stopped cosleeping it was both for birthdays. Kind of 'yippee! at this age we get this!' At 4 he got a big boy bed that I put at the end of our bed (he still climbed in our bed half the time). At five he got a regular twin in his bedroom. Each time it was a event with new bedding and theme, etc. His new bed had a "bravery amulet" and a new reading light. I had to encourage him and peek in on him but it didn't take long before he was used to it.

He's six and prefers to sleep in his bed now (although we are going through a little rough patch after a Jurassic park watching). I do read to him snuggled up with him and if he has a rough night and comes to get me I cuddle with him.

I think there will always be times my son comes to me in our bed, when he is sick or scared, but I am glad he feels comfortable to do so.

Good luck!
posted by beccaj at 10:18 AM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

When I was five, shortly after my parents split up (so exact same situation), my mom got me out of her bed by putting up a star chart -- I would get a silver star for every night I spent at least half the night in my own bed, and a gold star every time I spent the full night in my own bed. After X number of gold stars, I would get a toy of my choosing. It worked in probably less than 2 months.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:19 AM on June 18, 2014 [11 favorites]

We did co-sleeping (fwiw it's a Japanese thing) until, yeah, the kid was too goddamn big. We transitioned him to his own room by putting a futon at the foot of our bed. We then did the transition to his own bed in his own room by reading to him at night in there. For privacy, we retire to a different room that is not a bedroom.

It's all a bit of a pain the ass and takes forever, and it seems like the kids will never become emotionally self-sufficient yadda yadda yadda. However, the payoff of cosleeping like this, and the long "goodbye" of the staged transition is, apparently, more emotional resilience in later life. And a better connection with your kids.

Your child most likely misses you while away from you, so any extra time they can spend with you, even sleeping, is an investment.

From our point of view, when we had kids we made the commitment to put our kids first, so any of that privacy stuff is secondary.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:19 AM on June 18, 2014 [11 favorites]

Yes, there's some upheaval in you little guy's life, but you don't have to toptoe around him. Help him develop resiliancy and be firm about this.

"Max, I know we've discussed this and that you're a little uneasy about it, and that's okay. It's time for each of us to have our own rooms and our own beds. So let's make a plan about how we're going to do that." Be firm but sweet in how you approach this. He doesn't really get a say in this, you're the parent, he's the child, and you can make it fun for him.

1. If you can, go to the store so he can pick out new bedding and room decorations. Make his room his own private space, a place where he WANTS to be and have fun.

2. Be sure to develop a nice bedtime ritual. Perhaps a mug of Ovaltine after bathtime and a book read to him in bed in a dim room. Or you sing a song together.

3. Address any fears, a night light, or a white noise machine, or music at a low volume, whatever makes him feel comfortable.

4. Allow him to have sleep-overs. Maybe get a trundle for his bed, or another bed, or a bunk bed in his room. It's a signal that he's older and earning privilages that big-kids get.

5. Praise him often when he's in his room, "Hey Max, I notice that you're coloring at your desk, that's really cool, I'm glad you're having fun in your room."

Don't bribe him, or cajole him, or even seem sad or apologetic about it. Just treat it as another milestone, like potty-training or being able to stay up an hour later.

Another thing to avoid is putting a value judgment on it. "Big boys sleep in their own beds." That's not productive and he may not want to BE a big boy just yet.

If he gets out of bed and tries to get into yours, just take him back and sit with him until he gets back to sleep. It will suck for a night or two, but after awhile, it won't be a thing.

Approach it as matter-of-fact and as a done-deal.

I promise, this is a GREAT step towards independance, resiliancy and autonomy.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:20 AM on June 18, 2014 [9 favorites]

Your situation is much more complicated, but we've recently had some issues with Little Llama wanting to sleep with us. Typically, she doesn't, but it's been A Thing lately and we've decided to roll with it for a bit because we think it might be anxiety about taking a leap forward (kindergarten to first grade) and she might be feeling a little extra need for comfort.

THAT said, we also want to move our master bedroom from the second floor, where she sleeps, to the first, where The Cool Bedroom is. To make her more comfortable with this, we are buying her a phone, so if she needs us, she can ask us to come to her instead of navigating in the dark by herself.

Perhaps that's a supplemental option. I'd also consider building a tent in his room. Tents are cool and cozy and may be less overwhelming and weird.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:21 AM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

He and I have talked about it and he's not enthusiastic.

See, here's the thing.

Your question is about how to do this gently and kindly. You're treating this like it's a roundtable discussion where you and your son will decide, in committee, whether or not you get to sleep alone for the first time in six years and you're hoping you can convince him to come around to your side of things so he'll vote the way you want.

You're his mother. He's your son. He's six. You can just tell him that he has to sleep in his own bed now.

Parenthood is an awesome experience and all, but sometimes you just have to be the heavy. Sit him down and tell him that he's almost six, he's a big boy now, and he should sleep in his own bed like a big boy. He won't want to do it. He'll argue. He'll probably cry a bunch. That is okay. Again, parenthood. You have to be the heavy sometimes. It'll break your heart, and that's part of the deal.

It is okay if this happens during a time of upheaval. Kids are resilient. They adjust. Be firm and he'll adjust.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:28 AM on June 18, 2014 [33 favorites]

I have literally bribed my kids with candy and cookies for breakfast for sleeping-related accomplishments. IT WORKS.
posted by bq at 10:28 AM on June 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

These ideas aren't from personal experience, but they are the kinds of things I've thought about when we are ready to try transitioning from co-sleeping.

You could try a separate mattress next to your bed as a first step in the transition. Maybe get, or let him pick out, some new bedding, pillows, blankets to make it his space.

Then once he's comfortable there, you could talk to him about moving it to his room, maybe with letting him pick out a bed frame (I'm thinking something cool and fort like from IKEA, but that might be just what I'd want as a 6 year old : ). He'll already be familiar with the bedding and mattress, so it won't be a completely new space.

And trying to make it not an all or nothing situation. Encouraging him sleeping in his space, but, if you're comfortable with it, still allowing him to come to your room when he needs to. For this I'd get a mat to put next to your bed, comfy, but not as big or comfy as his new mattress set up. And, once he's somewhat comfortable in his new space, having him start the night in his bed.

For what it's worth, my little brother, who didn't cosleep as a baby, often slept on my parents floor (on a lounge chair cushion) as a child because he had bad nightmares. I also had nightmares but for whatever reason, I don't remember ever thinking to do that, and it makes me very thankful that he was able to go to that safe space when he needed to rather than just hiding under the sheets and not sleeping like I did!
posted by pennypiper at 10:28 AM on June 18, 2014

I would stop asking him for his permission, which is likely confusing for him and frustrating for you, and start treating it as a physical boundary that you are firmly (but calmly) maintaining. "Mom needs more space at night, we need to figure out a way for you to go to sleep that does not involve sharing a bed with mom". Then you figure something out that works okay for him but does not infringe on your boundaries.

Learning that other people get to have physical boundaries--even if you don't like them--is a huge part of learning how to operate in the world. It's especially important for boys to learn for what I think are obvious reasons. You're his mother so to some extent he does need closeness with you, but at the same time, that closeness can take a lot of different forms that don't infringe on your very reasonable desires for privacy and space at night.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:29 AM on June 18, 2014 [19 favorites]

I co-sleep (sorta, see below) with my son, who will soon be 8.

At bedtime, we snuggle up in his bed, in his room, and read stories. For a long time, I slept in there with him all night (my husband uses a cpap and it drives my son crazy). We are now transitioning to him sleeping alone by me laying down with him (just as always) in his bed, but after he's asleep (and sometimes, frankly, after I've had a little nap) I get up and move to my own room for the rest of the night.

Right now, pretty often he gets up around 4 am and comes in with us. But that used to be every night and now it's maybe 1 in 3. I think by the end of the summer it's going to be zero, and then maybe we'll start to work on him putting himself to bed.

I don't think you can just go cold turkey, particularly in your situation. Hopefully you can find a way to sort of ramp him down slowly, as he gets used to the idea.
posted by anastasiav at 10:32 AM on June 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is a little different, but I was terrified of my big girl bed because it was really frickin high, and there were no railing or anything. Make sure your kid isn't afraid to fall out!
posted by radioamy at 10:39 AM on June 18, 2014

When you and your son get home later today you tell him: "Tonight, and from now on, you are going to sleep all night long in your own bed in your own room. Our new nighttime routine together is going to go like this: at 8:30, once you're dressed in your pj's, and have brushed and flossed, and laid out all your clothes for tomorrow, and have used the toilet, I will get to tuck you in to your own bed and read you 2 books. Then I'll give you a big hug and kiss, and you'll go to sleep. Would you like to help me choose our 2 nighttime books now or later?"
posted by hush at 11:05 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

We went through this recently. A lot of the psychological stuff has been addressed, but there's a physical angle, too. Sleeping with another person is warm and snuggly and physically comforting; I don't like to sleep alone either! Make sure you've got layers of sheets, blankets, quilts, whatever your son prefers. Flannel sheets, although maybe not now that it's summer.

Large (like almost kid-sized) stuffed animals helped my son. He has two really big ones and they sleep on either side of him, tucked in like people. He needs to feel all packed in like a sardine in a crowded, warm bed.
posted by peep at 11:09 AM on June 18, 2014 [9 favorites]

A thing I've been saying to my kid a lot lately is "Yeah, X is a hard thing for you to do right now, huh? You're feeling Y about it. How can we make X easier? An extra hug? An extra treat after a successful X?" And then listening.

It makes it clear that X (bed sharing, for you) is not on the table, but that ways of transitioning to the new normal *are* on the table. It gives him some say in the shape of his life even when a clear boundary has been made. It's a gentle way of laying down the law. As my son has been figuring this out, he's been coming up with awesome methods of comfort that I would not have considered.

Possibilities of easing the transition, which you could suggest if he doesn't know: getting to pick the last cosleeping day (within a one-week period), snuggling in his bed for 10 minutes in the evening or morning, getting new awesome sheets or bedroom decorations, a reward for staying in his room, getting to go to bed 10 minutes later, getting a special stuffed animal to cuddle.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:12 PM on June 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

We did this earlier this year with our son, who would fall asleep in our bed and then need to be carried to his own bed. We used a reward chart (and still do). For a month, he got a star sticker whenever he went to sleep in his own room, small light on, mom or dad in the room until he fell asleep. He got rewards (a new Thomas train) after every 10 stars(ish). Then for the next month, he got a star when he went to sleep with the light off and mom or dad in the room. Then the next month he got a star when he went to sleep with the light off and by himself.

Before we started, we spent a week or so hyping up the awesomeness of the reward chart, repeating what he had to do in order to get a reward star, and I bought a bunch of shiny, glittery stickers at the dollar store.

It only took two nights before he got his first star, and then greed set in, so it's been pretty good ever since!

He's four, it's working, and now we're using the reward chart for non-sleep stuff.
posted by sillymama at 1:15 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

It helps to have something tangible. Give him two coins, for example, and tell him that he can "spend" these coins to get up twice per night. Once the coins are spent, he can no longer get out of his bed.

This way, he can get up to go to the bathroom with no repercussions. And he may get up to try to crawl in bed with you. But once the coins are gone, he needs to stay in his own bed.

I learned this in a casual conversation with a child psychologist. She suggests this to a lot of parents with problems similar to yours.

Sometimes the kids' melatonin (they have it at Target, and there's also a chewable version at Trader Joe's) will help an anxious kid get to sleep as well, but he shouldn't become dependent on it.
posted by Ostara at 1:40 PM on June 18, 2014

Set a plan, do what you can to get him on board, then for the love of little baby jesus do not go back on it. This will be a significant undertaking and weakness will be punished ruthlessly (by, you know, having your kid keep sleeping in your bed so we're not talking the bastinado).
posted by Sebmojo at 3:40 PM on June 18, 2014

Not sure if any of this helps or is relevant, but here it goes...

My almost 5 year old son goes through waves of climbing in our bed in the middle of the night. We are on night 4 of his nocturnal visits as I type this-- might last another week, or we might not see him for a month. When he first started appearing at my bedside at 3:30 a.m, he was 2 and a half. We had never co-slept before and he had no desire to co-sleep with us before that time. I had zero desire to co sleep ever. I was a little concerned about this turn of events and asked a friend who had a daughter who did the same thing.

She said she knew it would pass eventually and figured she would enjoy while it lasted. I liked that advice. My son's nocturnal visits and stays have never given me pause since. He will only be little once and for such a fleeting time. That said, we rarely let him go to sleep in our bed absent a special occasion, but we have always told him he is always welcome if he wakes up in the middle of the night and wants to join us.

I completely understand your need to move him out, but perhaps you can have a "go to sleep in your room first" compromise. This may not work with boyfriend visits, but it might be a transition and compromise you both might like.
posted by murrey at 7:00 PM on June 18, 2014

My sister went through this with her son. Basically nothing worked until he was ready (and you don't want to know what age that was). Listen, you probably co-slept because you believed in attachment parenting. To suddenly change to becoming a "cry it out" parent, as some are suggesting, is an about face that will probably not be as easy to implement as some are proposing. What I suggest instead is what someone else said...shift the co-sleeping to his bed, and transition that (possibly quickly) to you leaving the room after he falls asleep, and then eventually transition that to he's sleeping on his own.
posted by Dansaman at 1:05 AM on June 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

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