Will You Please Get a Room? Please?

Dear Mr. Dad: We have two boys, ages four and nine. The nine-year-old has no problem sleeping in his own bed, but the four-year-old constantly wants to sleep with my husband and me. I don’t mind an occasional “sleep over”–especially when my husband is away on business and the bed seems so empty. But lately, my son wants to be in our bed every night. That seems a little old to me. Is co-sleeping with a four-year-old okay?

A: I wish I could give you a definitive Yes or No, but the real answer is the completely unsatisfying “It depends.” There’s a lot of controversy out there about co-sleepng (or “the family bed” or “bed sharing” or whatever else you want to call it). Some authorities, such as the Children’s Health Network and the American Academy of Pediatrics say the practice is dangerous and they point to studies that show that the incidence of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) is higher when babies share a bed with parents. Others say that sharing a bed is fine, and they point to the fact that something like 80 percent of the world’s families practice co-sleeping. Unfortunatley, neither of those answers applies to your situation: At four, your son is far too old for you to worry about SIDS. And, like it or not, about 80 percen of the world’s families live in much, much smaller spaces than we do in the U.S., and the option for famiy members to sleep in separate rooms isn’t even on their radar.

When it comes to older kids, people on one side say that bed sharing is good for young children because it reduces tantrums and bed-time fears and anxieties. Those on the other side (including me) say that allowing your child in your bed could interfere with his ability to learn to self-soothe and could end up turning you into a comfort item, just like the blankie or favorite stuffy your child can’t sleep without.

Before deciding what to do, we need to figure out why your son wants to sleep with you in the first place—and why you’re allowing it. Is he afraid of the dark? Does he not like his room? Or could it be the mixed messages you’re sending (“it’s okay to sleep in my bed when daddy’s not here and I’m felling lonely, but it’s not okay when daddy is here.”)? Do not allow your son to sleep with you in order to stave off your own loneliness. It’s your job to comfort him, not the other way around. Those mixed messages might also make your son resent his dad for booting him out of “his” bed.

Okay, now let’s talk about what to do. It all starts with you explaining that your bedroom is for mommy and daddy, and your son’s bedroom is his own special place. If the issue has to do with fears, the solution could be as simple as installing a night-light or two or taking a pre-bedtime walkthrough of closets and spaces under the bed to show your son that they’re monster-free. If he needs more, you may have to spend a few minutes every night, tucking him in and then sitting with him until he falls asleep.

In especially stubborn cases, you might have to resort to shameless bribery. Offer your son a special treat for sleeping the whole night in his own bed. After a few times, make the reward for two nights in a row, then four, then a week straight, then two weeks, etc. Eventually, you’ll get the job done.