icon-arrow-down icon icon-arrow-fill-down icon icon-arrow-next icon icon-arrow-prev icon icon-tag-close icon
After a nightmare, my toddler refuses to sleep in her bed.
Q: My 2½-year-old daughter had a nightmare two nights ago. She woke up screaming about spiders. I have never shown her a spider other than in books and at the zoo a long time ago. After the nightmare, she refused to go to sleep and was extremely scared of her bed. I showed her there were no spiders and tried reading her favourite book. I changed the sheets and pillows and brought toys to her bed. I sprayed perfume, saying it was magic spray to make spiders go away. Nothing worked! Now she won't sleep in her bed at all. She slept on the floor for her nap, but refuses to sleep in her room at night. What can I do?
Emily San Diego
A: Emily, bedtime problems often occur in children between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. During this period, children have difficulty winding down at the end of the day and separating from their parents to sleep in their own room. The problem is they naturally love the attention and company of their parents, and they don’t always grasp the notion that even though mum and dad are out of sight, they will return. So you see, the problem is not spiders—although I thought your magic spray idea was very clever!

When it comes to children learning to sleep in their own beds, there are basically two philosophies. One is that children need to sleep with their parents in order to grow up to feel secure and safe. Parents who believe in this philosophy talk about the ”Family Bed.” The other philosophy is that children need to learn to separate from their parents and to sleep in their own beds. These parents believe that learning to master separation is part of growing up.

If you choose the family bed philosophy you will have an easy time of it right now because your child, like most toddlers, wants to sleep with mum and dad. If you choose the other philosophy, which I believe in, then you’re going to endure a few rough nights until your child adjusts to being in her own room. Here are the recommendations I offer to parents in your shoes:
  • Enjoy your child during the day so you don’t feel guilty at night, when it’s time to separate.

  • Make sure you and your husband go out as a couple so your daughter becomes used to staying with a sitter and seeing you come and go.

  • Have a bedtime routine to make bedtime as pleasant as possible. This routine might include a bath with some playtime in the tub, a snack, cuddling, a story and a song.

  • When you read a story or two to your daughter, do so in her room, while she’s in her bed. It’s okay for you to sit on the bed with her.

  • Have a night-light in the room and make sure you use heavy window shades to eliminate scary shadows.

  • A favourite blanket or a dummy can help, so you might want to make sure they’re close by for your child.
When the critical mument comes and you have to leave the bedroom, expect your child to protest. If your daughter continues to leave her room, carry her back to her bed and place an expandable gate across the doorway. Expect more tears and even a temper tantrum but sit with her until she stops crying, then leave. Your daughter will probably start crying again because she wants to sleep in your bed. After about five minutes, return to your daughter and quietly explain that it’s bedtime and she has to go to bed. Don’t leave until she stops crying. If she continues to protest, return five minutes later and repeat the same procedure. After that, return every 10 minutes. Your goal is to help your daughter calm down and feel reassured that you haven’t abandoned her.

I suggest you start this procedure on a night when it’s not critical if you lose sleep. Many parents don’t have to work weekends, so trying this method out on a Friday is ideal. I also recommend that parents alternate bedtime responsibilities. After all, it’s only fair that both parents become involved. Besides, it’s good for your child to see that each parent gives her the same message—that is, it’s time to go to bed.

It’s not easy teaching young children to stay in their own beds. Almost every book on parenting young children devotes a chapter to bedtime problems. Speaking of which, you might want to take a look at some of the parenting books to see what different authors recommend. Just remember that whenever you let your daughter sleep with you, you send a mixed message. Once your daughter masters sleeping by herself like a big girl, you can let her come into your bed on occasion, or camp out with you on a weekend. But don’t do this until your child is in the routine of sleeping in her own bed.