Who’s counting… sheep? Sleep issues in early elementary age kids.

At some point in every child’s development our beds themselves become a boundary, challenging us parents to find the right balance between love and limits in the context of what works for our own families.

A reader inquires:

“We started out attachment parenting – and now struggle with keeping firm boundaries.

But at night, or should I say early morning – and I mean every early morning between 1 and 5 am my six year old son (almost 7) sleepwalks into our room and climbs into bed on my side.  My right arm and shoulder is where he nestles and sleeps the rest of his night.  Incidentally, this is the first place the nurse put him to rest on me after he was born.

I have become an increasingly light sleeper as I continue my journey into peri-menopause, and so am almost always awakened by this phenomenon.  Did I mention it’s every night?  I find my self increasingly sleep deprived, and wondering what to do.  Well, actually I’m torn between enjoying the last years of his babyish cuddling and desperate for a good nights sleep.”


In the spirit of being the village (and not just saying that it takes one), I turned to my colleagues over at Sleepy Planet, Jennifer Waldburger and Jill Spivack, for true “expert” advice on this topic.

Their generous response is packed with wisdom and good counsel:

“Thank you for thinking of us!

This is a pretty typical reason why people would contact us – and our suggestions would pretty much entail an entire 2-hour consult!  There are lots of elements here, including the child’s developmental place, the parent’s philosophies and perspectives, and the behavioral pieces.  The mom’s emotions are also at play here – she is torn about her child growing up, so it would be good to explore that before moving ahead with any sort of plan, as she’d need to be committed to be able to stay consistent with setting firmer limits.

All of that having been said, here are a few ideas:

* IF the child is aware he is getting up (not totally clear as mom says he is sleepwalking?): Have a family meeting with both parents and the child.  Talk about how the little boy has been getting up and how it means his body isn’t getting enough rest, which means he’s too tired during the day, and same for mom and dad.  With pad and paper, go around the circle so everyone can contribute ideas to what would help him stay in his bed.  Write ALL the ideas down, even if they seem silly to the parents.  Then go back through and try to pick a few of the most viable ones – like sleeping with mommy’s pillow, or having mom help him back to his own bed when he gets up, or having a nightlight (goodnitelite.com is our fave).  The more he feels part of the process, the more likely he is to get on board.

* Have Mom (or the other parent, but ideally Mom since she’s the one who snuggles with him now) sleep in his room with him for a few nights, setting up a temporary bed (i.e., air mattress) and allowing him to get out of bed and snuggle with Mom on the floor at the same time he usually does.

* After 2-3 nights, parents should explain that Mom will stay in her bed on the floor, but if he gets up they will lovingly help him back to his own bed.  They should explain that as they are helping him back to bed, they will not talk, as it’s time for everyone to be sleeping.  Very important not to engage in conversation, which will only prolong his being awake/any protesting.

* They will need to prepare for the protesting.  He will more than likely not be 100% a fan of the change.  At worst, he may be very upset for a few nights as mom is sleeping in there and lovingly helping him back to bed (over and over and over and over…).  His upset does not mean anything is wrong – it’s just normal for us all to protest change!

* They can make a book (stapled together copier paper and stick figure drawings) about the changes they are making with sleep, and why (because his body needs the rest).  The book can include the steps of his usual wind-down routine at bedtime, and what the “new plan” is:  After we read books together and say good night, Sam will sleep in his bed, and Mom will sleep in her bed on the floor next to Sam’s bed.  If you get out of bed, Mom will help you back to your own bed, but we won’t talk anymore, and we won’t read more stories, and we won’t snuggle in Mom’s bed, because it’s time for everyone to get a good night’s sleep.  Then when the sun comes out in the morning, we’ll all get up together and have breakfast.”  Book should be read every night as they are going through transition to him sleeping in his bed all night.

* If he doesn’t already have a bedtime friend, Mom can take him to the store and help him pick out a special new “Mama bear” or other animal.  They can cuddle with this animal together at bedtime, then when tucking him in Mom can say: “I’m going to give Mama bear big hugs, so if you need a hug from Mom in the night you can hug your Mama bear.”

* Parents can make a “treasure chest” chest filled with small prizes (stickers, Matchbox cars) and let him know that if he stays in bed all night, he can pick a prize from the treasure chest in the am.  If he gets out the first couple of nights and still wants the prize:  “Oh honey, remember the rule – the rule is you need to stay in your bed all night, THEN you get the prize. But you have another chance tonight, and I know you can do it!”

* The first time he sleeps thru in his own bed, make a big deal!  Call Grandma, tell his teacher (maybe not in front of other kids, as he may be sensitive to that at his age), lots of praise.

* Play in the room LOTS during the day to help him feel very comfortable and safe in his room.

* Once he’s sleeping through, Mom should start to slowly inch her bed closer and closer to the door each night, then just out in the hall, then just around the corner.  Eventually back to her room.  If he gets up again at any stage, silently help him back to bed.

* Mom and he can have extra cuddle time during the day to reinforce their sweet bond. Don’t know if you would want to say this, but Mom may want to talk to someone – friend, therapist – about some of her feelings about her son growing up, to help her process her emotions and to help her make sure her own issues aren’t getting in the way of his development!  That she uses the term “babyish cuddling” might indicate that she’s still partly seeing him as baby.


So there we have it—Thanks Sleepy Planet!  I can only hope that other readers will happen across these words and find them personally useful and/or pass them along to other parents who may be struggling with something like this at the moment.

In closing, let’s dedicate today to healthy sleep—for our children and ourselves, and to doing what we can to learn, change habits and stay open to exploring issues that may be in our way, etc.—loving and limit-setting in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce (on behalf of Jen & Jill)

Sleepy Planet’s website: http://www.sleepyplanet.com/about.html (also on Privilege of Parenting’s blogroll)


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5 Responses to “Who’s counting… sheep? Sleep issues in early elementary age kids.”

  1. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Wonderful, practical post. Oddly, sleep is the one thing we have seemingly done right. (Watch, I am jinxing myself here.) Both of our girls have been tremendous sleepers from day one and we just made a seamless transition to the toddler bed. But I sense that this order will soon fade to the chaos that we know all too well and these sage tips will come in quite handy. I love how your blog is a nice mix of philosophical and practical bits about parenting. And I so appreciate your very thoughtful, nuanced comment on my blog. Thank you.

  2. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    My children are still a few years younger than your reader’s, but I did want to comment on how essential Sleepy Planet’s resources have been for helping us establish good sleep nutrition for our sons (infant and toddler). Jennifer and Jill’s book, The Sleepeasy Solution, is our personal sleep bible and I highly recommend it to any parent battling sleep issues with their young children. I was thrilled to see their advice featured here.

  3. Alana Says:

    Hmmm…yes sleep is a touchy subject from the moment a baby is born. Most of these suggestions seem right on – particularly because of the age of the child. He’s old enough to understand what’s happening (unlike an infant), even if he’s not keen on the change. I’m not a fan of the “praise and reward” school of thought though. It can work to modify behavior, but I’m always curious at what cost. I wish it wasn’t such a big part of our parenting culture. Perhaps with the dissemination of recent research, that will start to change.

  4. Stephanie Says:

    Thanks for this post. My favorite ideas are big praise when he makes it thru the night and the family meeting. My least favorite idea is a month of sleeping on an air mattress. I think we can do it with out that (famous last words). Nothinglinks a cure worse than the affliction.

    I will keep you posted on my progress. Thanks

  5. To Sleep, Perchance to Control « Motherese Says:

    […] a recent post at Privilege of Parenting, Bruce offered some advice to a reader concerned about the sleep issues of her six-year-old son.  […]

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