There is no single best approach to handling sleep problems. Just as each child is unique, each parent is unique – with different values, different tolerances and temperaments. The key to finding the best solution is to find the one that fits you, the one you can commit to enough to see it through until you reach your goal.
The basic philosophy is that parenting and nurturing is a 24-hour proposition. The family bed works especially well with high-need children whose needs continue strongly all night long. To determine whether it is working for you, ask yourself: Is everybody sleeping or is somebody’s sleep being disturbed? If someone is not sleeping or you are playing “musical beds,” it may be time to look at other options. If everybody is sleeping, then don’t be concerned with what your relatives or the neighbors say. The bottom line is not who is sleeping with whom but who is sleeping.
You should know, however, that when a child starts out sleeping in your bed, he or she may be with you for many years. So, when will your child leave your bed? Purists would wait until the child is ready. If you are ready before your child is, there are ways to get your child out of your bed and teach new sleep habits without a “cold turkey” approach that might be devastating to both of you.
Cry It Out
You simply let your child cry until he falls asleep and learns to sleep on his own. It is my personal belief that you need to give an infant up to six months to develop the neurological maturity it takes to be able to sleep through the night.
Crying it out is the shortest method. It usually takes four nights, and it usually works. It is easier with a younger child than an older one because you have more control when your child is in the crib than when in bed. At bedtime, once you put the child down – after whatever your routine is – don’t return to the room, whether or not your child is crying. In the middle of the night, either don’t respond or, if you do, go in, check, make sure everything is OK, say good night, leave and don’t come back. The child essentially is learning that waking in the middle of the night or needing a parent to help him go to sleep will not be reinforced.
Teaching in Small Steps
This method refers to any approach in which you employ a gradual teaching method. One “small step” method that may be helpful for moving the child out of the family bed is to begin by letting the child sleep in a sleeping bag next to the parents’ bed. The next step might be for the child to begin the night in his or her own room with permission to move to the sleeping bag as needed. Another “small step” is to make the child’s room so attractive that the child finds it very enticing to be there. Then the parent can stay in the child’s room until the child goes to sleep or gets used to the idea of staying in bed. Another way, with a child at least 2 1/2 years old, is to use positive reinforcement so that the child is rewarded – with either stickers or inexpensive toys – for going to sleep or staying in his or her own bed at night. With small steps, the child is gradually getting more skilled at staying alone and you are weaning yourself out of the bedtime process.
Living With It
In some situations and with some personalities you will have to decide that for now there’s nothing you can do or “choose to do” to work on a particular sleeping problem. For example, the child who is repeatedly ill or who is dealing with difficult life circumstances. Maybe the child is going through a developmental issue like separation problems. You may want to wait a little bit for the issue to pass or simply for the child to learn independently.