We let our eight-year-old sleep in our bed, and it's the best decision we've ever made

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock Photo: Getty Images

My husband and I don't share a bed anymore. He spends his nights on our couch, but it's not because we've fallen out of love.

We settled on these sleeping arrangements because there's really only room for two people in our bed, and right now the two people are me and our eight-year-old son.

My son didn't always sleep in our bed. He moved into his own room shortly after he turned 1 and was joined by his younger sister a few years later. Then my son had a rough year in first grade.

We now know he has ADHD and some accompanying anxiety, but at the time we had just begun the process of getting a diagnosis. Though he's very bright, he struggled in virtually all his subjects and was constantly in trouble. Every night, he cried about how much he hated school.

"I'm not really bad, right, Mum?" he'd ask as he shared that he was once again "on red" on the behaviour chart. "I'm trying so hard," he told me.

His self-esteem plummeted to the point that he physically shook when he did homework. I used everything in my tool belt to make reading fun for him and help him succeed. We tried prereading strategies, turned to active games to work on vocabulary and read in a fort we built to make him feel safe.

One particularly good day, he begged me to share his success with his teacher. "Can you tell her I read a hard book?" he asked. "Can you tell her that I'm not dumb?"

As the year went on, he became increasingly afraid of being alone at night. We sought advice from a therapist and combed articles online. We tried establishing a bedtime routine, spraying lavender on his pillow and weaning him off our presence by sitting near his bed and gradually moving farther away. Nothing worked. So often we caved and let him sleep with us, because at some point a child just needs to sleep.

When I shared this with another parent at school, she shrugged and suggested we were being manipulated. She wasn't the only person to say that. People's responses were so negative and intense, I wondered whether letting him sleep with us would do serious long-term damage.


My gut told me otherwise, yet these concerns plagued me. Was I eliminating the room for him to grow emotionally? To work through his fears? To find internal confidence?

Then something happened to change my mind. One night, I was home alone with my two kids. My 5-year-old daughter was already asleep and I was going to the bathroom.

When I was done, I realised there was no toilet paper. I called out to my son and asked him to grab some from the other bathroom. He told me he couldn't because he was too scared to be alone.

Our apartment is less than 1,000 square feet; the other bathroom is approximately two brightly illuminated feet from my bedroom door. I pleaded with him, and reminded him it was nearby and wouldn't even take 10 seconds.

But he just said, "I can't," with his voice breaking.

I looked around the bathroom for something that could serve as toilet paper. There was nothing in sight - not even a washcloth or a pair of dirty underwear. I cajoled, begged, reasoned and at some point started yelling.

Suffice it to say, the toilet paper was retrieved - but not by my son. Once I'd calmed down, I realised he was crying. "I'm sorry, Mummy," he said. He apologised again and said he tried, but he just couldn't do it.

Accompanying a deep sense of parental shame was the realisation that it was true. He couldn't. While my request may have appeared simple, it wasn't. My son's brain is beautiful, but it doesn't work in a neurotypical way, and my expectations for his behaviour were based on a standard that wasn't fair to either one of us. If I wanted my son to succeed, I needed to parent him differently, taking his anxiety and other challenges into account.

I began to involve him in more collaborative problem-solving, and I eliminated consequences. After negative encounters, we began "rewinding" to act out how we could do things differently, rather than belabouring why something he had said or done was wrong.

Three people don't fit very comfortably in our queen-size bed. We can't upgrade to a king because there isn't enough space in our two-bedroom apartment. The only other option was for one of us to relocate to the couch.

We quickly fell into a pattern. My son and I would head to bed around 8 and watch an hour of "The Last Airbender" or tell stories. As we cuddled to sleep, he curled into me and thanked me, whispering, "I love you so much, Mum."

As he became more secure at night, he was less anxious during the day. He separated at school more easily, and he was more confident at play dates and running off at the playground.

Yes, I miss falling asleep with my husband, but the fact that we don't sleep together makes us more deliberate about finding time to connect, both emotionally and physically. We have many years left to sleep in bed together, but the time our son will need us this deeply is finite, and being there for him now will carry forward and hopefully help him for the rest of his life.

He knows the goal is for him to make his way back to his room; that he will need to find ways to be secure in the light and the dark.

But for now, in the moment, he's secure in my bed, knowing no matter what challenges and obstacles each day brings, each night will end with something predictable and secure, as he falls asleep knowing he is safe and loved.

The Washington Post