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Four-Year-Old Won't Sleep in His Bed

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: We have created a monster of a problem at our house with the family bed. My son is now four, growing big, still an only child, and we are having a hard time getting him to sleep in his own bed. He also awakes repeatedly at night and comes looking for us when we are watching a movie in the family room, asking us to come to bed. Needless to say this robs us of our couple time.

Given that he does understand when we speak with him, I use problem-solving techniques (Dr. Thomas Gordon's P.E.T.) with him, but he still comes into our bed while we are sleeping.

Lately I have resorted to bribery, offering chocolate if he does the night in his bed, a ridiculously limited option given that it will not work over the long term.

You see, I know all this stuff, but somehow, I am having great difficulty applying it. I would welcome any suggestions you might have.

A: Transitioning from the family bed to sleeping in your own bed in another room can be and usually is a major adjustment for a youngster. I hasten to add that you did not create a monster by having a family bed; you gave your child a wonderful, secure loving environment. Now you all need to get through this transition stage with as little difficulty as possible, acknowledging it is going to be difficult for a while.

Richard Ferber's books deal specifically with the sleep problems you are dealing with. Clearly bribing him complicates the problem as you have stated. I would suggest a 20-30 minute wind down routine that involves quiet activities in his bedroom, like being read to and exchanging stories. Do anything you can to associate his bedroom and his bed with things that are comforting and exciting; making a big deal out of his "big boy bed" is a must.

When you do finish your wind down routine and it's time to go to sleep, you or your husband can tell him you will lie down(or sit) next to him while he falls asleep and then you'll be in the next room if he wakes up. If he does wake up, talk to him soothingly and take him back to bed where you will stay with him while he drifts off to sleep again. This may seem like it's too much of your time but this can be a scary transition and one that merits extra special attention, time and understanding. Good luck, I'm sure you will all come through this famously.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


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