8 & 9-year-old who won't sleep alone

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Eight-year-old needs parent to fall asleep

April 2006

I need some advice about getting our eight-year-old daughter to sleep at night. She can't fall asleep unless one of us is in the bed next to her. She usually falls asleep fairly quickly, but when she doesn't, it creates havoc between me and my husband (we argue about who will put her to bed- last night he said he would do it but then inturrupted my down time because she could not fall asleep). He often puts her to bed and then falls asleep himself, then wakes up, goes into our bedroom and has insomnia. I hate putting her to bed because I really need time alone to unwind. If I can read it is fine, but some nights she can't sleep unless the room is dark and then I am just sitting there doing nothing and feeling resentful that I can't do my own thing. One the one hand, I know she is old enought to start falling alsleep on her own. On the other hand, I can appreciate her need to feel close and secure with a loved one at night. Also, she is pretty uptight about this issue. She has not had a successful sleepover yet and freaks out if a babysitter has to put her to bed. She says she is not ready to sleep on her own. So, any thoughts? tired

Oh, memories! Both my son and daughter (now 19 and 15) were the same way! If it helps any, they did outgrow needing one of us to fall asleep (both around age 10). What was really difficult was when they both wanted someone, were in separate rooms, and there was only one parent home! It seems funny now. Seriously, it won't last forever. One thing that worked, occasionally, was to reason with them. Sometimes I would say ''I really have alot to do and can't lie down right now. I promise I will come back in 5 minutes to check on you.'' And DO IT. No more than 5 minutes come back and say ''How are you doing?'' and touch her head or kiss her forehead, and say ''I'll be back in another 5 minutes.'' If she is in the mood to cooperate she will stay awake to make sure you are coming back a few times and eventually fall asleep. It didn't always work, but as I said, it doesn't last forever. Sleepy Mom
I'm having a similar problem and I can empathize. My son won't sleep in his own room. He has to fall asleep in my room and then my husband has to move him once he is asleep. This is a step up from when I used to have to sleep in there with him for him to fall asleep. So the next step we started last night. He has to sleep in his own bed but he can read for a while and once he does this for 5 nights, my husband will take him out to buy a toy. So we are bribing him - for now. Hopefully he gets used to it. Last night he cried and cried and it was hard for me but I just let him know he would be okay and that he just needed to find a way to be cozy. I told him stories of how I got cozy in bed when I was a little girl and I gave him stuffed animals to cuddle which he loves. Another Softy
I'm so glad to know that someone else has this situation! Unfortunately, I have no advice for you. I lie down with my 7 year old daughter until she falls into a deep sleep. I read or listen to a walkman to pass the time, but many nights fall into a deep sleep myself for an hour and then get up. Since she can take a long time to fall asleep this cuts into time with my husband and time for my own activities. She really needs a family bed, but it's not something that my husband was willing to do after the first year so I return to her as needed during the night. I know this sounds crazy to most people and I do tire of the routine, but she seems to need it so much. Everything has gotten easier in time and I trust that bedtime and night wakings (nightmares) will too. I hope you and she find something that works for both of you. It's not easy. Anon
Wow. I really thought that we were the only ones with an eight year old that did this.

Our son went through the exact same thing. And this was after several years of going to bed just fine by himself. I think that he developed a fear of the dark but wasn't able to express it for a long time. Anyway, we would just lay with him and read (try a book light or head lamp) until he fell asleep. But, as you mention, this can get really hard on the adults. So now we lay down and read together until ''lights out time'' (whatever you decide that time to be) and then we leave. But he still needs a nightlight in his room and the hallway light on until he falls asleep.

You could also try what we did when he was much younger to help him go to sleep alone-every two or three nights sit a little farther away from the bed at bedtime until you're sitting at the door and then finally in the hallway outside the room (boy, did that feel silly!) This may help her gain confidence in her ability to deal with being alone at bedtime. Been there (still doing that, occasionally)

Calmly explain to your daughter that she needs to fall asleep on her own now. Take her to the store and let her pick out a big stuffed animal that she can cuddle.

At bedtime tell her that she needs to fall asleep on her own, again, and the stuffed animal will keep her company. Keep reminding her, and keep her in her room. Don't fall for repeated trips to the bathroom or glasses of water. Leave the door open a crack if she needs it. Be persistent. Don't let her take naps during the day by keeping her busy. By day three she should be so tired that she falls asleep on her own.

Think about other boudaries that you might not have set with her. She needs to gradually be able to do more things on her own if she's going to eventually be independent and you need to have an adult relationship with your husband. Your strong relationship with him sets the tone for her relationships with boys and men in the future. And one of those issues is boundaries. What about some time for Mom?

Hi, we just went throught the same thing with our daughter,who is a few years younger, but the situation was very similar. I started doing my errands in her room at the end of the night. She would watch me and then fall asleep. I folded socks, read my email, signed my checks, recycled catalogues, graded homework, etc. First, it took about an hour of whining and pleading to cuddle, or for a story, but then she finally dozed off from boredom, but with a touch of security. Now, she knows I unwind downstairs or in my room and there is no seperation anxiety. She just visualizes me doing something boring and that puts her to sleep alone. She is not missing out on anything fun, but she knows I am active in the house thinking about her. Does that make sense? It was a natural transition. Luck! Been There
In the long term, it sounds like you need to clarify whether you think she should fall asleep on her own or not, and if you think she should (because it sounds like it's imposing very negatively on your family peace and marriage), then you should start talking to her about how she'll need to start falling asleep on her own, and give her lots of praise for progress in that direction. She's definitely old enough for it but apparently not used to it at all. Maybe you can even give her some music that will turn off on its own, or a low-wattage lamp that will turn off.

In the shorter term, I'd suggest a headlamp flashlight and a good book. It sounds like you don't really mind it if you can read a book. With a decent headlamp (check REI-Petzl makes some good ones), you can still read, but the rest of the room is dark. Use that as a start to let her learn how to fall asleep.

If that's not good enough for your daughter, then frankly, I think you need to tell her it's too bad, and you need to set firmer boundaries for your own sanity. Trust me, she'll survive.

Our son was the same way. Even now, at 12, he still goes through periods when he wants company, or at least the feeling that he is not alone. One difference from your daughter is that he will only fall asleep with the light on, so it is possible to read, fold laundry, whatever!

A few ideas helped us help him, depending on your specific goals: Use a small book light while you read in her room. Sit just outside of her room where you can read but still be nearby. Let her know you'll be very close by, and will check on her, and do so often - either come in often, or at least call to her to let her know you are around and aware. This helped our son transition. Works best if her room is near the ''active'' part of the house. Play a soothing CD of nature sounds or gentle music EVERY NIGHT. Start with both the CD and your presence, then fade out your presence. Let her know you will sit with her for 5 minutes (or whatever your limit is), but then need to _____ (fill in the blank...). Again, check back periodically.

Never lie down on the bed if you don't want to fall asleep! Best is a separate chair, but sitting at the foot of the bed will do. R.K.

9-year-old is used to sleeping with his dad (my new husband)

I just recently married a man who has a wonderful son who became accustomed to sleeping with his Dad after his divorce three or four years ago. My husband understands his mistake and we have been working with his son for the last several months to break the habit. We're very aware of the fact that I have displaced him and while he loves me he still wants his Dad. He told us that after his ninth birthday (a month ago) he would be ready to put himself to bed. (His dad has been snuggling with him until he falls asleep.) Now, of course, he has decided he is afraid of the dark. We've used a chart with rewards, we've turned a deaf ear to his crying, we've talked to him, bargained with him. We've tried to find books that deal with problem but all of them refer to small children. Any suggestions? We'd be grateful.
My younger son had trouble going to sleep until he was 11 or 12. He was OK when he shared a room with his brother, but when he was 8 and got his own room, he stopped being able to go to sleep. He was just plain scared. He told me that when he lay down he would start visualizing scary things he had seen in movies or just out of his imagination, and he couldn't prevent the scary images from coming into his head. So I would read to him, and then just sit on the foot of his bed till he fell asleep. This got really tiresome and I didn't do it consistently. But if I sat there reading my own book, he'd fall asleep in 5 minutes. If instead I tried other tactics like leaving, or setting a time limit on how long I'd stay, it would drag on forever. He eventually outgrew it. Some things to try that helped my son: tell him if he gets scared, he can call for his dad and he will come in there right away no matter what (and then make sure he does). It's good to give him some way to calm himself down if he gets scared. Give him a comic book or something funny to keep by his bed, and make sure he has a reading light, and tell him if he wakes up or he can't sleep, he can read for a little while. We used Calvin and Hobbes, and that helped a lot. Or tell him he can go in and watch TV. or anything else he can do by himself that is calming and relaxing. Get a snack, play on the computer. If he wants to keep the lights on all night in his room, let him. I would let the bedtime be flexible for a while until he figures out how to get himself to sleep by himself. In fact, I had always held the kids to a regular bedtime, until they got to be 12 or so. Maybe it's a coincidence but my son seemed to find his own way into a more regular sleep pattern once he was in charge of how and when he went to sleep. He now goes to bed on his own by about 10pm, (he's 15), and seems to sleep well and not have any problems, and that has been the case for the past few years. So, just hang in there, it will get better!
I also have a nine year old boy who was afraid of the dark and needed to learn how to sleep alone and the advice I got from a child therapist was really helpful to me. Alot has to do with ones own ambivalence. If children sense that, they will have a hard time. My son and I agreed on a time to start. I got him a radio alarm clock which he could listen to before sleeping and a night light so the room wasn't completely dark. Let him pick out what he wanted to sleep with (blanket? stuffed animal?) and reading material if he needed it. We talked about things he could do for himself if he got scared. I agreed I would look in on him (just look, not stay and interact) every 10 minutes. Then we did a couple of rehearsals where we did our story, which is our pre-bed ritual in his own bed. He fell asleep there both times we did this. So when the night came, It was no problem and I expected and have had alot of misery and crying on previous occasions. Remember ones own resolve is key.
All of my children went through phases at many ages of not wanting to sleep in the dark and/or not wanting to sleep alone. By 9 they were all falling asleep in their own beds, but not necessarily with the light out. We worked towards gradually phasing in darkness. Believe it or not, they each had times when they would fall asleep with all lights burning. We would work them down to just a lamp, and eventually they would on their own turn all lights off when they went to sleep. ANother thing they have done at times is to drag a sleeping bag or blanket into our room and sleep on the floor of our room. They didn't fall asleep this way, but would creep in quietly in the middle of the night. Doesn't allow for much privacy, but they did all outgrow it. (Well, our nine year old still does it sometimes, but the 13 and 16 year old never do!) The slumber parties were most likely to occur at stressful times. When the youngest was born, for example, my 6 year old would wake up in the middle of the night, go and get his younger sister, and they would both creep into our room and settle down on the floor for the rest of the night. My 9 year old returned to our floor this week after his grandpa got sick, but I'm confident that even he, who has slept through the night for maybe a total of 100 days in his entire life, will eventually completely give up this practice. So, a compromise for your 9 year old might be to fall asleep in his bed, lights on or off as he chooses (and maybe listening to a tape, or with 10 minutes of dad's time to start off), maybe with the added understanding that he could camp out on your floor if he wakes up in the middle of the night, after you are asleep. This might take away the sense that this is a conflict between the new mom and him, and make it just one more transition to adjust to. Good luck.