If your kids are like a lot of children, they never seem to last through the night without ending up in your bed, ruining your chances of unimpeded shut-eye, night after night.
Statistics on how many children sleep next to an adult at least part of the night are hard to come by, but it's one of the most common conditions that children's sleep specialists encounter. And it can often be fixed without professional help.
Brandon Butters, operations manager at the Iowa Sleep Disorders Center, says many children who don't sleep by themselves simply aren't used to it. "It's more of a problem with the parents not setting their own limits," he says.
He and Jyoti Krishna, pediatric sleep specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, added that children rely on routines. Adults aren't much different.
"He or she has learned to sleep with a mom, or with a bottle, or with a binky or whatever," Krishna says. "You have your favorite pajamas to sleep in. If you go to sleep in jeans, you'll want to wake up in the middle of the night to change."
If your child is in preschool or elementary school and still won't sleep through the night by himself, it's possible to change these habits. But it will require time and effort.
Your Child's Abilities and Needs
Children should start learning to stay in their beds through the night as soon as they leave the crib, Butters says.
Families in some cultures share the same bed at night, Krishna says, and it's not a bad practice if you're OK with it. "If you as a family are accepting of it, then it's not a disorder," he says. (Babies are an exception. The American Academy of Pediatrics says they are less likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome if they have their own places to sleep.)
Regardless of cultural norms, Krishna says, children who are at least 4 years old should have the ability to sleep through the night by themselves without incident.
Every child needs a different amount of sleep each day. Generally speaking, the National Sleep Foundation says children between the ages of 3 and 5 sleep from 11 hours to 13 hours daily. Older children, up to the age of 12, need between 10 and 11 hours.
Most kids who have trouble sleeping by themselves haven't gotten in the habit of doing so. They might push your limits so you relent and let them sleep in your bed, just this once. Reversing this pattern means setting a routine and sticking to it—not constantly granting their requests for one more story or one more drink of water.
"Where parents often fail is giving in intermittently," Krishna says. "The child learns to play the game."
Here is some expert advice for establishing new habits:
- Set up a bedtime routine that includes quiet activities, like a bath and a story, to help your child transition into sleeping. End the routine by having your child lie in her bed, alone and awake, before going to sleep—no letting her fall asleep on the couch and taking her to her bed later. "It confuses them if they go so sleep someplace and wake up someplace else," Butters says.
- Address your child's fears. Many preschoolers are afraid of the dark or fear monsters in the closet. Plugging in a night light or checking the closet for monsters should put him at ease.
- If your child comes to join you in the middle of the night, send her back to her own bed.
- Give your child a small reward for sleeping in his bed all night.
When to Ask for Help
Krishna says some sleep problems require a doctor's attention. They include:
- Night terrors: If your child abruptly wakes up, afraid. A child experiencing a night terror will be confused and won't respond to your voice. She will probably not remember the incident. Night terrors are different from nightmares.
- Sleepwalking: Children who sleepwalk move around while asleep and don't remember it after they wake up. Professional help is necessary if sleepwalking is common or places a child in a dangerous situation.
- Snoring: Kids who snore might have sleep apnea, a condition that temporarily stops people from breathing while they sleep. Those with sleep apnea are often tired during the day. Tell your doctor if your child snores, Krishna says.
- Restless legs syndrome: When a child has an uncontrollable urge to move his legs at night, parents often attribute it to the fact that he's growing. But Krishna says it may be a real medical condition that interferes with sleep.
But if your children are like most, they just need a firm, consistent routine to sleep through the night on their own. Developing this habit will mean easier nights all around.