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Children in the Bed

Air Date: 06/30/10 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723, or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.net.A few weeks ago, one of the families I work with told me they had a problem they'd been reluctant to mention. They're great folks committed to their kids, willing to work together, and open to any idea that helps them build a more peaceful and respectful family. I've known them for quite some time but this was the first time they'd mentioned this particular issue because, it turns out, they were more than a little embarrassed. It seems one of their children, now 10 years old, sleeps in their bed every night and they don't know what to do about it. This situation actually is not uncommon. By the way, there are some families who practice what is known as "attachment parenting" and who choose to have the entire family sleep together. This is known as the "family bed" and while it isn't my preference, I know families who tell me it works well for them. Which is great. Unfortunately, most of the parents who have children sleeping in their bed have wound up in that situation mostly by default. It's something they started when their children were little and that they somehow never found a way to change. I've spoken with parents whose children are three and five and eight and yes, even 10, who would love to have their bed to themselves so they can have a conversation, sleep peacefully, or even gasp! enjoy an intimate relationship (if you know what I mean) but who haven't found a peaceful way to evict their children. There's another variation on this theme. This is the parent who lies down with a child in her bed to "help her sleep" and then falls asleep her- or himself, thereby blowing the entire evening. So why don't parents with children in their bed just boot them out? Well, because the kids don't like it. They cry. They have tantrums. They whimper and whine. Bedtime already incredibly complicated in many families becomes a genuine nightmare. And sometimes kids sneak back into their parents' bedroom in the middle of the night. I've talked to parents who awoke to discover a child sleeping on the floor next to their bed or outside a closed door. Sometimes it just seems easier to give in and leave them in the bed. There are a number of child development experts who believe that learning to sleep alone is one of a child's first opportunities to learn confidence and independence. It's also true that most folks these days are seriously sleep-deprived and parents usually tell me that when kids are in the bed, no one sleeps very well. Young children need nine or ten hours of sleep each night; teenagers need at least eight or nine. Adults need seven and should not be driving car if they get less than six but many of us routinely struggle through our days on five hours of sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to serious health problems for adults and children alike but more commonly, it just leads to lots and lots of irritability and bad behavior. Parents have no patience and few emotional resources; kids are cranky and whiny. There's a bigger issue here, too. What do children learn and decide about themselves and about you when they can manipulate you into giving in? Parents often ask me why their kids scream, yell, and whine. The answer is simple and rather unpleasant: They do it because it works. It's sort of like a good ol' Nevada slot machine. If a child knows instinctively that a parent will give in even occasionally, the tantrum is well worth having. So if you have a youngster sleeping with you and you'd like to reclaim the marital bedroom, here's where to begin. First, have a conversation with your partner. Make sure you're on the same page and that you're both willing to endure the hassle that will result from changing your child's sleeping arrangements. Pick a weekend, or a time when you're less likely be stressed at work. Recognize that you'll need to see this through to the bitter end if you insist and then give in again, you'll have made the problem worse rather than better. Next, do some problem-solving with your child. The 10-year-old I mentioned admitted sheepishly that sleeping with her parents was "just a bad habit." When they told her kindly and calmly that it was something they needed to change, she agreed and moved to her own bed. Younger children, though, may protest rather loudly. If you don't already have one, it helps to have a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine. Your child can help you create a bedtime routine and a chart showing what will happen and when. Try doing the bedtime routine in your child's room so he gets used to being there. Eliminate TV from the routine, by the way it's been shown to disrupt sleep patterns. Once your child is in his own bed, offer a hug and leave. If he pops out of bed or tries to climb in with you, escort him kindly and firmly back to his own bed as many times as it takes. It's the follow-through that matters. Your child will know if you mean it and he'll know if you don't. It may take a few nights before bedtime goes smoothly and your child sleeps in his own bed but it's generally worth the effort. Everyone needs peace, quiet, and a good night's sleep. Your child will follow your lead once you decide what you will do and follow through with dignity and respect. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.