Dear Dr. Rene,
I have a three-year-old who recently started having bad dreams and would come into our room in the middle of the night. If I didn’t fall asleep, I would put her back in her own room. Now she’s afraid of her room saying there’s ghosts in there, is afaid of the dark and literally shakes and screams when I try to put her in her room. She has a nightlight and I’ve ghost proofed the room. I hate to leave her shaking and screaming, so of course back in our room she comes. We also have a new six-month-old.
Mother of two, ages three years and six months
The first thing I would do is have a gentle conversation about how her room is a safe place and it is where she should be sleeping. I would have this conversation in the afternoon, not right at bedtime when it is more likely to develop to a struggle. Then, several times in the next few days, I would talk about how safe her room is and how safe the house is. I would talk about how her room is just for her and your room is just for you to sleep in.
Rather than all the fuss and the back and forth, you might opt for the “gradual move out method.” This is on the time-consumming end but gets kids to sleep on thier own with less crying and upset than the check-in methods. For gradual move-outs, you first finish your bedtime routine and you stay, for a week, while she is falling asleep. You sit beside her with your hand on her back. The next week, you sit beside her, but keep your hand off her back. The next week you move to a chair next to the bed. The next week you move the chair six inches away and so on until you are out of the room. With this method, if she wakes in the middle of the night you sit wherever you were at bedtime. By the time you have moved out of the room she has slowly gained confidence and is not needing you. The drawback, this takes some time!
There are other, smaller thangs you might do to help. Rather than you checking her room for ghosts (this sends the message there just might be some), do a room check together to see there are just clothes in the closet and just toys in the box. The language says there are no ghosts and not even a possibility. For a sense of control, you might give her a flashlight that she is welcome to use if she is in bed. You might offer to check on her “more often” if she is laying down and quiet. You might spend more fun time playing and reading in her room during the day.
Whatever you do, if she wakes at night, return her to her room. It is less reinforcing if you fall asleep in her room than her in your room. Her getting to fall asleep with you in your room strongly reinforces trying again the next night.