Ask An Expert / Sleep

How do I get my son to sleep in his own bed?

Anxious kids can learn to sleep independently with a technique called "fading"

Jamie M. Howard, PhD
Jamie Howard, PhD

Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center, Director, Trauma and Resilience Service

Child Mind Institute

Just wondering what way to go about making my son sleep in his own bed. I have probably done the wrong thing and allowed him to be in my bed every night since he was quite young. Through the years I have talked him into getting back in his own bed, but after about 2 weeks he is back in mine. He gets bad anxiety and doesn't want to go to bed at all, even with his dad, if I am not home. He cries and calls me 20 times, saying he just wants me home so he can sleep. Have I done this to him? And is it too late to change? What can I do to help him get over the sleeping anxiety problems he has? He doesn't seem to have anxiety in any other situations.

First of all, it isn’t too late to help your son, but you do need to stop letting him sleep in your bed. This is important because when you let him sleep in your room you are inadvertently confirming his notion that it’s unsafe to be alone. Reinforcing anxiety is actually something that a lot of well-intentioned parents accidentally do when their children come to them for reassurance. But don’t worry — parents can also change tracks and help kids develop new associations. You can absolutely start reinforcing independence at bedtime now.

Before you begin, see if he can articulate what it is he is afraid of. For example, if he is afraid of the dark then he could benefit from some exposure therapy to help him get used to being in the dark. If he can’t articulate his fears, that’s okay, too. Our ultimate goal here is to help your son learn to tolerate uncertainty without seeking reassurance from you. During this process you should also be careful not to shame him for his fears.

To help your son adjust to sleeping on his own, you want to do something called “fading.” In this case that means your son gets used to sleeping in his own bed as you gradually fade your presence. You might start with him lying in his own bed and you sitting in a chair next to him until he falls asleep. Once he can do that you can gradually move your chair further and further away from his bed, until you are sitting outside his bedroom with the door open. Depending on how severe his anxiety is, you could also use a sleeping bag instead of the chair. If he gets in your bed at any point, immediately get up and walk him back to his room. Sleeping in his own bed needs to be a new rule that is very firmly followed — letting him backtrack really mars the progress that he is making. You may need to brace yourself for the next couple months, because this can take some hard work.

Make sure to really praise your son for each gain. Try also to have a point system in place, where a certain amount of points equals a prize that is really motivating to him. Remember this is also hard work for your son, and we want him to feel good about the strides he is making.

Finally, if you try this and it doesn’t seem to be working, or if you feel you need support to set up a plan for fading (and sticking to it), talk to a psychologist or a mental health professional for help.

Read More: Encouraging Good Sleep Habits