How Should I Deal with My Child’s Night Wakings?

Six-year-old Emma fell asleep in her own bed each night but, just after midnight when her parents were deeply asleep, Emma slipped undetected into her parents’ bed like a little ninja and stayed until morning. Emma’s parents needed a way to manage these nightly visits.

If your child is waking at night and either calling out to you or coming to your room, chances are he or she does not yet know how to fall asleep completely independently at bedtime. My book has a very specific and gentle way to help you teach your child to do this, but in the meantime, let’s talk about how to manage night wakings and early morning wakings as you wait for your child to master this skill.

Choose a Method 

If you still need to be in your child’s bed at bedtime until he or she falls asleep, first work on moving out of the bed and into a chair. Once you are able to sit in a chair while your child falls asleep, you can choose from the four methods below to manage night wakings.

The method you choose to manage these depends on your own parental preferences. When you choose the method you want to use, keep in mind that these wakings almost always decrease in frequency once your child can fall asleep independently at bedtime without you in the room. Also, whichever method you choose, keep your interactions with your child brief at night. You want your child’s night wakings to be boring, not rewarding or entertaining!

Method One: Set Up a Temporary Spare Bed in Your Child’s Room

With this method, you would come to your child’s room if he or she calls out to you after an awakening (or you would walk your child back to his or her own room if he or she  comes to your room) and then you would lie down in this spare bed in your child’s room after tucking your child back in to his or her bed. The spare bed could be a sleeping bag, air mattress, or twin mattress that you have placed in your child’s room temporarily.

Once you get into the spare bed, face away from your child and try to pay very little attention to your child as he or she is falling back to sleep. You can even act like you are asleep. This will help your child practice self-comforting even while you are nearby. You can remain on the spare bed until morning or move back to your own bed once your child is asleep.

If moving back to your bed results in your child waking multiple times during the night, just stay in your child’s room in the spare bed after his or her first waking. Over time,  as noted above, once your child learns to fall asleep independently at bedtime, these night wakings will decrease.

You can also gradually move this spare bed out of your child’s bedroom toward the door and then out of the room completely once your child masters the skill of falling asleep independently at bedtime and wakes less at night.

This method is a good one because it teaches your child to wake up in his or her own room every morning. This helps child learn that the shift from feeling anxious after an awakening to feeling relaxed can happen in his or her own room rather than in your room.

Method Two: Sit in a Chair in Your Child’s Room

With this method, you would come to your child’s room if he or she calls out to you after an awakening (or you would walk your child back to his or her own room if he or she comes to your room) and then you would tuck your child back into his or her bed and sit in a chair. When you are in the chair, face away from your child and be very quiet. It’s also fine to act as though you are asleep in the chair until your child falls asleep. Move back to your own bed once your child is asleep.

If moving back to your bed results in multiple awakenings, you may need to move back to Method One to avoid losing a lot of sleep yourself. This method is a good choice because, again, it also teaches your child to wake up in his or her own room every morning. It helps child learn that the shift from feeling anxious after an awakening to feeling relaxed can happen in his or her own room rather than in your room.

Method Three: Walk Your Child Back to the Bedroom

Once your child is falling asleep independently at bedtime easily and quickly (and night wakings are rare), walk your child back to his or her room every time he or she comes out, give him or her a quick tuck, stay a moment, and then go back to your own room. If you do not walk your child back every single time, he or she will learn that there is a certain time of the night that you will give up on this and let him or her into your room. He or she will then come in again and again until you give in and let him or her stay.

Method Four: Make a “Nest” in Your Room

You have worked hard to teach your child to fall asleep independently and in his or her own room each night. But sometimes this process is exhausting and some children are more persistent than others. If you want to start with a step that might help you to get more sleep at night, you can set up a temporary “nest” in your room. The nest can be a small sofa, a small spare mattress, a sleeping bag on some couch cushions, or some other type of small bed. When your child comes to your room at night, direct him or her to this nest to go back to sleep.

Try practicing this before bedtime, so your child will know exactly where to go. Make sure your child knows that he or she is allowed in your room but not in your bed. Make sure you also send the message to your child that unless he is quiet after coming in, he or she will be walked back quickly to his or her own room. You might say, for example, “If you come to our room during the night, you will need to come in quietly and go back to sleep in this special bed that’s just for you. Otherwise, we will walk you back to your bed.” Stick to your guns on this rule from the start, even if it means multiple walk backs at first.

Final thoughts

Think about whether your child is able to sneak into your bed at night without you knowing or waking. Many kids are able to do so; kids are like little ninjas! If so, you may want to set up a system that allows you to be more aware of your child’s arrival in your room. For example, you could install a door latch or a motion sensor on your door (or on your child’s), so that you would know right away if your child leaves his or her room to come to yours. If you use a latch or a motion sensor, for example, you will hear your child trying to open the latched door, or you would hear the beep that the motion sensor makes when your child crosses the threshold of his or her room (or yours). You will then be able to handle these night wakings before he or she makes it into your bed.

Remember to keep lights to a minimum during any wakings and be sure to avoid any eating and any drinking at night except for water. Always avoid using any electronics to get your child back to sleep. And, again, remember that nighttime awakenings tend to decrease significantly once your child learns to fall asleep independently at bedtime!

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