Ask An Expert / Sleep

Our 6-year-old son falls asleep with relative ease but has a difficult time staying in bed. What can we do?

Kids need to learn to fall asleep by themselves in order to go back to sleep by themselves

Steven G. Dickstein, MD

Our 6-year-old son has a difficult time staying in bed. We adhere to a routine of reading 2-3 books around 7:30pm, dimming the lights, and finally leaving within five minutes of the lights going off. While he falls asleep with relatively ease (or with some coaxing, i.e. I can't sleep, please get some water, etc.), not a night will pass without our son seeking out a warm body (in his parents' or sibling's bed) between 12am and 4am. My wife and I have tried positive reinforcement, rewarding him if he stays in bed, and finally punishing him if he doesn't stay in bed, yet nothing seems to work. In all other parts of his life he approaches things with unabashed confidence. It's perplexing to us why he can't sleep through the night regardless of how exhausted he is after a full day of 6-year-old activity.

The first thing I would want to understand is the problems that your son’s nightly wanderings are creating. Having a child come into your bed to sleep isn’t, in itself, problematic, but it can certainly be stressful if it’s interfering with sleep (his or yours) or creating conflict in the family.

If you want your son to stay in his own bed when he wakes in the middle of the night — and it’s normal to wake in the middle of the night — he needs to have learned to fall asleep without someone in the room with him. Whatever a child needs to fall asleep at bedtime, he’s likely to need to fall asleep again later. Think of it as a nice comfy pillow. If he wakes and that source of comfort isn’t there, he’s likely to go looking for it.

Most often, you can teach a child to fall asleep by himself by withdrawing gradually at bedtime before he actually falls asleep. Usually I advise parents to move a little farther away each night until you are no longer needed within eyesight (e.g., moving from their bed one night, to a chair in the room the next night, to the doorway another night, and finally down the hall out of sight). This is the same principle we use to help kids overcome anxiety, called “systematic desensitization.” You’re essentially teaching him, at the same time, ways he can put himself back to sleep, too.

Keep in mind that there is no one “right” way for a child to sleep — except that everyone in the family has to get enough sleep.