Q: I’m a working single mom with a 4-year-old daughter who won’t go to sleep unless I lie down with her. Plus, if she wakes up in the middle of the night to find I’m no longer in her bed, she comes and crawls into bed with me. If I attempt to persuade her to go back to her bed, she starts to cry. To be honest, I just don’t have the strength to fight it. She knows what I want her to do, but she also knows I have yet to enforce it. Can you provide me with a workable plan that will not cause her — and therefore me — anguish?
A: Sorry, but there is no such thing as an anguish-free method of turning your daughter into an independent sleeper.
Your story is evidence of what I’ve been saying for years: Independent sleepers are happier, more well-adjusted children. Let’s face it, you are describing a 4-year-old bedtime basket case — yet another in a long list of casualties of parent/child co-sleeping. And to think there are trusted “experts” out there who recommend this emotionally crippling practice! I could name names, but I’m writing this in an uncharacteristically charitable mood.
First, the longer you cater to your daughter’s bedtime drama, the worse it is going to become. I strongly encourage you to begin your daughter’s bedtime rehabilitation next Friday night, at the latest. If possible, take Thursday and Friday off work and implement the following solution on Wednesday night. That gives you four nights of “cure” before you go back to work, and four nights ought to do it.
Second, there is no way of doing this without upsetting your daughter. Just keep in mind that her screams are symptoms of withdrawal, and withdrawal is painful but not harmful. Third, the solution will be more traumatic for all concerned if introduced in stages. It absolutely must be introduced all at once, cold turkey. And once introduced, you must not waver.
The solution: On Tuesday night, tell your daughter you’ve spoken with her doctor, and he said you can no longer, come the big day, lie down with her at bedtime, nor can she come into your bed in the night. Remind her that people are required by the laws of common sense to do what their doctors tell them to do. But you’ve decided that after you put her to bed and leave (do not linger!), she can turn on every light in her room and take her time falling asleep. You’ll even give her a sleeping bag and set up a tent for her to sleep in if that’s what she wants. Sleeping can be an adventure! But she must sleep in her room. The doctor said so, and that’s that.
Furthermore, the doctor said that when you go to bed, you must lock your door. She can drag her sleeping bag into the hall outside your door and sleep there, but you cannot so much as open your door until morning.
Again, the key is not to waver. Your daughter is probably going to scream, cry, beg and make promises to the effect that if you allow her to sleep with you just one more night, she’ll never ask to sleep with you again. Be prepared for a night straight out of a Stephen King novel, but don’t you dare open that door! In the morning, act like nothing happened. Only two or three more nights to go!
Keep this in mind: When this is over, and it soon will be, you’ll see a much happier little girl waking up in the morning.