Children often sleep alongside parents or siblings as they are growing up. This practice is termed “co-sleeping”, and typically, it occurs on a nightly basis for an extended period of time: weeks, months, or in some cases, years. Many families find co-sleeping a good way spend time together and bond as a family, or to reduce their child’s stress around falling asleep or waking during the night. It is also popular among breastfeeding mothers during their child’s infancy.
While sharing a bed might ease pressures on families while children are very young, the habit of co-sleeping can pose problems as children mature. By the time their children are 2 – 2 1/2 years old, most parents will be eager to have them sleep easily through the night in their own beds.
Why should my child learn to sleep alone?
Encouraging independent sleep in children as they mature is important for several reasons:
Extended co-sleeping can discourage children from achieving what’s known as “night time independence”. Children with night time independence are confident that they can fall asleep on their own, and know how to comfort themselves if they are stressed or anxious around sleep – key steps in healthy emotional development.
Frequently, pre-school and school-aged children have fitful sleep cycles. Having a child kicking, tossing and turning in their bed can interrupt parents’ sleep, leading to exhaustion and stress throughout the day.
Parental intimacy is often compromised when their children sleep with them. This can have a detrimental effect on a couple’s relationship, affecting communication and physical closeness.
How do I break the cycle of co-sleeping with my school-aged child?
If your child refuses to sleep alone, or wakes up crying during the night, and only stops when you are near, he might be experiencing separation anxiety at night. This pattern is also known as “night-time separation anxiety”. Night-time separation anxiety is common among children up to 3 years old, but older children can experience it as well.
Here are some things you can do to ease night time separation anxiety and help your child sleep alone:
Develop a regular daily routine. The same waking, nap time, and bedtimes will help your child feel secure, which can help them fall asleep more easily. Have a bedtime routine – for example, bath followed by story time and a brief cuddle. Consistency and clear communication is key.
Keep lights dim in the evening and expose your child’s room to light, preferably natural, as he wakes. These light patterns stimulate healthy sleep-wake cycles.
Avoid putting your child to sleep with too many toys in his bed, which can distract him from sleeping. One or two “transitional objects”, like a favourite blanket or toy, however, can help a child get to sleep more easily.
Don’t use bedtime as a threat. Model healthy sleep behaviour for your child, and communicate that sleep is an enjoyable and healthy part of life.
Avoid stimulants like chocolate, sweet drinks, TV and computer use before bed time. Children ideally need to relax and “wind down” for at least 1 hour before bed time.
Some other strategies to reduce your child’s dependence on co-sleeping include:
Wean your child from your bed over time. For example, you might plan to spend part of the night on a mattress on the floor of your child’s bedroom or sleep with him for a few hours in his bed before returning to your own.
Use a baby monitor to help a child who wakes at night communicate with you or your partner. This will also reduce the likelihood of him walking to your bedroom. If your child communicates to you through the monitor, visit him in his bed to reduce disturbance.
Use rewards, such asThe Quirky Kid Tickets to measure improvements in your child’s independent sleeping. For example, a partial night spent in his own bed will earn him a yellow ticket, while a full night sleeping alone will get him a red one. The child might collect tickets to exchange them for a prize.
We offer a range of services, workshops and individualised consultations to support children with sleeping difficulties. Please contact us for more information.
University of Michigan Health System (2011). Sleep problems. Retrieved September 23, 2011 from http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/sleep.htm
Brazelton, T. Berry and Joshua D. Sparrow (2003). Sleep: The Brazelton Way. Perseus Books.
Kimberley O’Brien (2011). Interview on Co-Sleeping with children and strategies for parents.
Keller, M. A. and Goldberg, W. A. (2004), Co-sleeping: Help or hindrance for young children’s independence?. Infant and Child Development, 13: 369–388.
As some pre-schoolers may not yet be fully cognisant of their identity being separate to that of their parents, it is quite normal that times of separation, like the ‘drop-off’, can be loaded with separation anxiety and distress.
Other pre-schoolers are already little thinkers, able to anticipate future separation thus increasing their anxiety surrounding the morning’s pre-school drop-off. This child may ask the night before “is it a school day tomorrow?” and then display challenging behaviour from early in the morning in an effort to avoid the anticipated separation.
Here are a few options for managing this tricky issue of separation anxiety for pre-schoolers and parents alike.
Begin by learning more about your child’s day by having a conversation with the staff at the pre-school. Questions to ask include:
– How long does he or she take to settle? – How are his or her play and social skills developing? – How well is he or she communicating?
Pre-school staff provide valuable feedback around issues such as how well your child is able to do things like share, take turns and manage frustration with peers. If there are significant issues occurring in these areas, difficulty separating from parents and caregivers can reflect your child’s distress at entering an environment where they are having consistent negative experiences. If this is the case, it is important to target the skills and behaviours which are less developed and causing difficulty as a first step
If pre-school staff report that your child settles quickly and is reaching normal developmental milestones around play, communication and social skills, you can then target the issue of separation and assist your child to learn to cope with this process.
If your child happily gets ready for school and appears quite relaxed until the actual moment when you are leaving, we recommend:
Keep drop-offs short and your actions consistent e.g. Spend a period of time settling your child by engaging them with a carer and/or activity. It may help if you narrate your actions so your child is clear about what is happening “ Let’s take you over to (carer) or Let’s go and set you up with the blocks…. It’s time to say goodbye now. Mummy will come and collect you at (time). OK Mummy is going now, (kisses/hugs) bye.
Stay calm and make sure to also use your face to communicate, e.g. I know you are sad when mummy goes (show sad face) but you have a great time with (carer/ friend’s name) (show happy face)
If your child is a “little thinker” and anticipates separation well before the event, we recommend:
Create a ‘days of the week’ chart so your child is aware of school days and the weekly routine.
Normalise the anxiety or worry by validating your child’s feelings e.g. “You’re a bit worried about going to school and being apart from mummy. It’s OK to feel worried”
Encourage your child to persevere even though they are worried by reflecting on their past experiences. e.g. “You were worried about leaving mummy last week but you were very brave and went to school and then you had lots of fun”, “you were worried when we went to the party on the weekend but then you settled in and had a great time”
Create some catch phrases with your child to assist them to manage. Use these phrases on multiple occasions and have your child repeat them back to you. e.g. “I just need to play some games then I’ll get used to it”, “Even though I miss my mummy, I’m OK and my mummy is OK”, “I will have a lot of fun today and mummy will pick me up soon”.
Praise your child for being brave and doing things even though they are worried.
Be aware of supporting your child’s worry by allowing him or her to avoid attending pre-school or a feared event as a way of managing their anxiety. This usually exacerbates your child’s anxiety rather than diminishing it.
If all the above fail, the Quirky Kid clinic runs a popular anxiety workshop called ‘ Why Worry? for children aged 3 and above. You can also consult one of our psychologists individually to discuss other strategies.
Separation Anxiety in children is characterized by a extreme level of anxiety when the child is separated from their home, family members and parents. Children displaying signs of Separation Anxiety often become homesick, do not want to attend school, avoid visiting friends houses or may not be able to enter a room on their own. In addition, children can have difficult around bedtime and may insist that someone stay with them until they are asleep. Another characteristic is psychical pains like, stomach aches, nauseas and vomiting, especially when separation occurs. Below you can find more information on what to look for before asking for help.
What should I look for?
Does your child show excessive anxiety relating to their separation from home or people such as Mum or Dad? Is this level of anxiety unreasonable for a child of their age?
Is your child repeatedly distressed when they are separated, or think they are going to be separated, from home or from Mum or Dad or another significant person?
Is your child constantly worried about something happening to a family member, such as an accident or illness?
Does your child worry that something will happen that will separate him/her from the home or family?
Does your child refuse to go to school or participate in other activities away from the home or significant family members?
Is your child excessively scared of being left alone or being without significant family members in other settings?
Does your child refuse to go to sleep without being near a significant person, or does s/he refuse to sleep away from home?
Does your child have repeated nightmares about separation?
Does your child complain of physical symptoms when s/he thinks s/he is going to be separated from his/her home or significant family members?
The Quirky Kid Shoppe has select useful resources for parenting and children experiencing Separation Anxiety and others forms of Anxiety.
How can the Quirky Kid Clinic help your child?
The Quirky Kid Clinic is a unique place for children and adolescents aged 2-18 years. We work from the child’s perspective to help them find their own solutions. If you suspect your child may be experiencing symptoms of Separation Anxiety, you might consider one the following options:
Book an individual session with our experienced Child Psychologists
Register for the Why worry workshop and Sydney or register for Why Worry in Melbourne or
Kimberley discussed the impact of divorce on children with presenters of from the Sunrise on Channel 7. You can find out more about the problems associated with separation and divorce and strategies to better deal with it by visiting our resources page or discussing it on our forum.
The full interview is available below:
If you have a story and would like to discuss it with us, please schedule a time. Kimberley O’Brien enjoys sharing the best of her therapeutic moments
with the media.
Kimberley discussed the Quirky Kid Divorce workshops, Doing the Splits, with reporters at The Australian. You can find out more about holiday workshops on coping with divorce, dealing with anxiety and making friends by visiting our resources page or discussing it on our forum.