Stay in your own bed

Bill posted, “My son is almost four, and used to be a good sleeper. Lately, though, he wakes up several times a night to sneak into bed with my wife and I. He says he just wants to sleep with us. But I can’t sleep with him in the room—he kicks and rolls around too much, and I end up on the couch. Why is he doing this, and how can I get him to stay in his room?”

Usually, a preschooler who starts wanting to sleep in his parent’s bed is just going through a phase, without any particular reason behind it. Still, you should ask yourself if there’s any reason you can think of for changed sleep habits. Sometimes an illness, family stress, or some other event leads to this kind of disruption. But even if you know the answer, you’ll still need a way to get his sleep back on track.

At this age, I suggest a method based on a system of rewards. Every morning when he wakes in his own bed, after having spend the whole night in his own bed, he gets a sticker on his “Happy in My Bed Chart.” Getting 5 stickers earns him a trip for ice cream with dad; earning 15 stickers earns him a radio controlled car! (Feel free to change the details. But that car is cool—it climbs walls? Sorry, I’m getting distracted.)

You’ll want to make a big show out of making the chart, decorating it, and helping him understand how he can fill the boxes by earning stickers. Be sure to look at the chart at bedtime to talk about the plan for the night, and go right to the chart to put a sticker on it first thing after a successful night. If he does creeps into your bed at night, you quietly take him by the hand back to his own bed—don’t scold him, and don’t remind him just then that he lost the sticker. In the morning, remind him why he isn’t getting a sticker, but don’t make a big deal out of it. Don’t take stickers away once he’s earned them.

One other thing: you mentioned that he kicks and rolls around a lot at night. It’s possible with this going on that something medical is interfering with his sleep. Does he have loud snoring with pauses, indicating sleep apnea? Is there a family history of restless legs syndrome? If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” you need more input directly from your pediatrician.

Best of luck, and let us know how it goes!

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4 Comments on “Stay in your own bed”

  1. Gretchen M Says:

    Dr. Roy, I read the above info re: the 4 yr old that wouldn’t stay in bed. I have a similar issue w/ my 3 yr old boy, he had his tonsils out 1 mo ago, then I had to leave town for 7 days. I understand “why” he gets up and comes to me 3-4 times/ night – but how do I get past it. I did stop his daytime naps that he took as well, but it doesn’t make him sleep through the night. He is also very tired about 5 pm. I am now doing naps every other day or every 2 days.He usually wakes once per night to go to the bathroom too. Will the reward method work for a 3 year old?? P.S. He “pinky swore” he would stay in bed, but I don’t trust him… THANKS!

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  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    Gretchen, try to keep his bladder empty at night– he should use the bathroom right before bed, and avoid drinks after bedtime. That might help with at least some of the night-wakenings.

    Make sure that he is always falling asleep on his own, alone. If you’re staying in the room with him, no “magic” will get him sleeping through the night. He’ll continue to wake up to find you. Is that what’s going on?

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  3. Gretchen Says:

    Yep. I never had to be in the room when he was falling asleep. He always fell asleep on his own, even as an infant. But, after his tonsils were removed, I started making sure he was doing ok. I realize I may have created my own little monster…but I don’t know what to do. I bought the stickers, made a “stay in bed” chart, encouraged him to stay in bed, fall asleep on his own, etc. But, it hasn’t made much of a change if any. I’m still sleep deprived and getting more frustrated. When he wakes to use the bathroom, he goes a good amount. I will limit his fluids as well. Any other suggestions would be great…I would love to actually sleep more than 4 hours at a time..thank you. We are patients of yours at Pediatric Physicians too.

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  4. Dr. Roy Says:

    Although it’s not very common, if he really is urinating a large volume several times at night, he ought to have a quick dipstick test of the urine, just to be sure there’s no diabetes.

    More likely, it seems like his poor sleeping is from the disruption of his surgery. Don’t despair! If he was once a good sleeper, he can become a good sleeper again!

    Go back to the basics that got him sleeping well in the first place. A good routine, starting at the same time every night, is important: a small snack, a bath, read a story– no TV prior to bed (really, none after dinner is best. TV is stimulating.) Have snuggly kisses, and talk about him staying in his bed all on his own, and about the sticker (or plastic dinosaur from Oriental Trading Company, or whatever) that he will earn. Tell him something like, “I know you can do a good job with this!”

    If he does wake up, don’t talk to him. Just take him by his little hand and put him back in bed. This isn’t meant to be mean or punishy, just kind of bland and non-emotional.

    Alternatively, you could set up a cot or something in your bedroom, and make a deal with him that he can come in, as long as he doesn’t wake you up. See if both you and Dad agree on this before suggesting it.

    If his bedtime can’t seem to end cleanly (with him falling asleep alone), you may need a more protracted plan for weaning away your bedtime connection. Let me know if that’s where the problem is.

    Good luck!

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