How can I wean my children off their new habit of playing 'musical beds'?

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock 

There's a sort of whimsy in the phrase "musical beds," but in reality it's a mess.

I can't predict whether bedtime will crescendo into angry tears or if everyone will ease into sleep. I don't know if I'll fall asleep being clutched by our preschool-aged daughter, snuggling with our older son, or by myself.

Once upon a time in our home, it was understood that kids sleep in their beds, mum and dad in their own bed. We successfully sleep-trained both infants using a modified Ferber method - known as "cry it out." Like every agonising-at-the-time parenting situation, the stress of sleep training eventually faded into the rose-colored past. I was terribly smug, confident that we had gotten something right that so many other parents get wrong.

Then we moved across the country, and everything changed.

Our 2-year-old daughter said with increasing urgency, "I sleep in Mummy and Daddy's room." Our son, envious of her prime position, also began cuddling in. Nudged out by tiny elbows and knees, my husband gravitated toward another bed. The kids now follow their whims about where and with whom they'll sleep, often flipping back and forth throughout the night.

Co-sleeping can be lovely and so, at first, we rolled with it. There's a sweetness in watching their faces softening into sleep. A little hand reaching out in unconscious reassurance that you're still there. When you have small children, getting a full night's rest feels like a revelation.

But as our daughter led the full-speed charge toward, "We can't have it any other way!" my resentment grew. Now I fret about potential long-term issues. Then comes the inevitable voice: My children need me! How selfish am I to put my comfort ahead of theirs?

With parenting, whatever the drama du jour is - weaning, nutrition, potty training, sleep - it sucks up a ridiculous amount of emotional energy. Entire mummy groups have crumbled under debates triggered by hot-button topics like sleep training.

It was reassuring, then, when I posed our mixed-up sleeping scenario to a parenting Facebook group and got an avalanche of empathy: My child had anxiety and needed me in her room; we got divorced; we needed sleep and it was survival.

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That's how I know we're not alone, but it's still an uncomfortable topic.

In her book, "Co-Sleeping: Parents, Children, and Musical Beds," Susan Stewart, a professor of sociology at Iowa State University, interviewed 51 parents who co-sleep and found that many of them would prefer not to. The benefits - a better night's rest with fewer disruptions - keep them going. But shame and stigma keep parents from talking about it with their pediatrician or peers.

Stewart pointed out that even though co-sleeping is common among other cultures, our own desire to stay quiet comes from self-perpetuated guilt.

"The problem is you're receiving information on all sides and there's a lot of pressure to be perfect," she said. "If something is screwed up, whose fault is it? There is so much guilt among mothers."

Despite the reassurance that our situation is normal, I'm nagged by concern that our kids can no longer fall asleep on their own, and bouncing between beds can't be healthy. We've misplaced our boundaries and it's our job to reestablish them. But while there are volumes of books and advice columns brimming with infant sleep-training tips, there are fewer resources for dealing with older kids.

I checked in with Irene Makriplis, a certified pediatric sleep consultant at Lullaby & Me.

"Toddlers want a lot of physical contact, which is separation anxiety more than a sleep issue," Makriplis explained. "With kids ages 2 and up, it's up to the parent: how you talk to your child, how firm you are."

Her words made perfect sense, but being firm with a little one isn't easy. Unlike an infant, our daughter can get out of bed. And open doors. She can ratchet up tearful wails, wheedle in her lispy voice and come up with negotiating tactics that make me marvel.

"Give cuddles before bedtime, so she's feeling fulfilled by the time she goes to bed," Makriplis recommended. She suggested gating off our daughter's room to establish a boundary, and pointed me to a gentle sleep-training method known as the Sleep Lady Shuffle.

Created by Kim West, the premise of the Sleep Lady Shuffle is to sit in a chair beside your child until she falls asleep, offering "intermittent reassurance" such as pats or rubbing. Each night, move the chair farther away until your child can go to sleep without your presence.

Today is the day, I say every morning. Then every night my daughter says, "I sleep with Mummy," or "I sleep with Daddy," and we're so exhausted that we give in.

So I went to Kim West herself for advice. A licensed clinical social worker and author of several books including "The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight," West has counseled families for more than 20 years.

It's so common, said West, to see parents evolve from nursing and rocking babies to sleep to lying down with their little ones, "because it's easier."

As part of the Sleep Lady Shuffle for kids ages 2 to 5, she recommends holding a family meeting: "Admit that you taught them to fall asleep one way, but now you're going to teach them another way."

With any sleep-training approach, she said, you have to be in the right mind-set to stay consistent. Whether you run into the room in the middle of Ferberizing or give in to your kid's demand to lie down during the Sleep Lady Shuffle, inconsistency can derail every effort. The fear of failure makes it tough to begin and so . . . we haven't.

Next, I stumbled into RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers), a nonprofit membership program based in Los Angeles. At its core, this approach is about "respecting" babies as whole beings who are capable of participating in their surroundings.

"Sleep issues are reflective of a child's entire day. You can't work on sleep without considering how you set other limits," said Janet Lansbury, whose books and podcast, "Unruffled," have established her as one of the leading RIE voices. "If parents are erasing themselves and catering to their child's every need to avoid them ever expressing displeasure, we get enmeshed. It's very hard to undo."

Ugh.

"It's not hard for the child," she clarified. "Children change very easily, but it's hard for us when we've perceived our role in a certain way. People think if their child cries they're a bad parent."

As she spoke, I realised that was the crux of it: The fear of being a "bad parent" drives so many of our decisions. Raging internal debates can paralyse us.

Will the nightly resentment building in me eventually poison us? Maybe I've put so much energy into this that I'm the one who created the problem. Or perhaps our kids will only sleep with us a little longer, and the whole event will slip into the past.

I wish I could say that we've landed on our sleep solution. We haven't. But in small moments I've seen glimmers of how moving boundaries doesn't have to be dramatic. How acknowledging my feelings can defuse a battle before it escalates. How being easier on myself makes everyone around me more relaxed. And maybe those are the confidence builders that get us closer to being the parents we want to be.

The Washington Post