When my daughter was born we started off by co-sleeping. Our bed is pretty small so by the time she was 2 years old my back was getting sore from sleeping all squashed together. So we took the side off my daughter’s cot and had it next to our bed. I introduced the idea of falling asleep in there. She was completely happy to do so from then on.
A few months ago my daughter (now 4) had to go to the doctor to get a blood test. The night before she got really upset and scared. She fell asleep clinging to me.
The blood test ended up being much more painful than either of us anticipated, and at the time she didn’t feel safe enough to express her fear or pain at the time.
For the next couple of months she would only fall asleep next to me in our bed. Later we would move her into her bed.
Now I absolutely loved falling asleep with my daughter cuddled up and close. Because she’s a night owl, and I love to go to bed early we tended to fall asleep at the same time around 930pm.
But, I also had my suspicions that this need to fall asleep close to me was a pretext that was about emotions related to the doctor and the blood test. For two years she’d been perfectly happy falling asleep in her own bed. Even before that, (around 18 months) she’d naturally turn away from me to fall asleep, as if making a little space and distance for herself.
I was also noticing some changes in my daughter’s behaviour. She started waking early, which was really out of character. Ever since I’d used the Hand in Hand parenting approach to help her sleep through the night she’d always slept really well. Now if I took a shower or came into our bedroom to get something, she’d wake up.
As well as being clingy around the house I also noticed another change when we were out in public. She became very fearful around other children she didn’t know. If we went to a playground she would avoid the slide or the roundabout if there were other children using them. If playgrounds were full of lots of children, she just wouldn’t want to play at all.
We’d always been happy sleeping in one room and it suits our family as we live in a small apartment and it’s just the three of us. And if we had a big enough bed, I would happily co-sleep as it works for us.
But I began to see that letting my daughter fall asleep close to me every single night, wasn’t actually serving her. We may have been physically close, but I wasn’t listening deeply to the emotional struggles she was having, or making the space to hear them. She wasn’t able to lead a full and happy life when she wasn’t getting enough sleep, and was having fear triggered in everyday situations like the playground.
I wanted to help her release the fear that was making her feel scared to sleep in her own bed. I started with a bit of laughter. I started saying, I was going to lift her into her own bed. So I picked up my pillow, and tucked it into her bed. Then suddenly realising my mistake, I’d say, ”oh, hang on that’s not R, that’s my pillow!” I repeated it with lots of soft toys, and got some giggles flowing.
Then I realised that there wasn’t much I could do to get my daughter to fall asleep in her own bed other than physically move her. I didn’t want to do that. I knew she’d been in situations where she’d felt physical overwhelmed and powerless, and that physically force would not be a way to help her overcome this.
So I let her stay in my bed, and I began to tell her that I was going to leave the room and let her fall asleep by herself. She started to cry. I reassured her that she would be completely safe, and that I’d just be in the next room. I reassured her that I absolutely loved falling asleep cuddled up to her, and that I was doing this because I wanted to help her with her feelings. I told her that after I’d listened to the feelings we could have lots of nights, falling asleep cuddled up together. I told her that I wouldn’t leave her if she was crying, that we would wait until she was ready. I kept gradually trying to leave, moving a few cm’s further each time, and then coming back to stay with her when she got upset. I listened to three big cries, on three different nights with lots of cuddles, gradually trying to leave.
Then I noticed the changes. Within one night, she wasn’t waking early anymore, and was sleeping deeply, getting the right amount of sleep. That first morning she woke up and wasn’t clingy anymore. She played with her Lego by herself while I took a shower saying, ”I’m 4 and a half now. I can play by myself.”
She started being more adventurous physically. When we were on some escalators one day, she started walking to the top by herself (whereas before she would have always held my hand). When we went out with her scooter, she started trying going down hills for the first time. And when we went to the park she was happy to play alongside other children, smiling and glad to have their company. When one child was in the way, she said excuse me to them in Swiss German, rather than feeling like she had to be the one to get out of the way.
I think many of us (myself included!) can worry that separating at bedtime may be upsetting for young children. I wanted to write my story to show that when we stay close and work through the feelings, we can deepen our connection to our children and build their confidence.
Children thrive on physical closeness. But they also need to have emotional closeness. To be securely attached a child needs to internalise a deep sense of connection so that they can feel safe to venture out and explore their world. It could be to play on a roundabout by themselves, or go on a playdate.
Fears and upsets can get in the way of that sense of connection to us, in effect our child clings to us, because they need an extra big dose of connection. Sometimes setting a limit and listening, is the most helpful thing we can do to our child, to help them release the upsets that stand in the way of internalising that sense of connection.
All families have their own sleeping arrangements that work for them. It’s always good to trust your instincts about what your child needs at any particular time in their life.
Is there an area of your child’s life where they seem stuck or fearful? For example perhaps they can only be with mummy at bedtime, or they have to fall asleep with a pacifier (dummy). These may be places where you can set a limit and listen. The next day your child might surprise you in the ways they grow and shine, and can be their most confident, adventurous selves.
You might want to read this article too, Moving Your Child To His Own Bed To Sleep and Helping Children Conquer Their Fears.