Night Night, Sleep Tight: Getting your children to sleep in their own beds after divorce

When children won’t sleep in their own beds after divorce, what is a parent supposed to do?

You’re dead tired, it’s been a long day and your little (or perhaps not so little) darling just can’t sleep. The answer? Simple. Just pull back the covers and let them crawl in bed with you. After all, the divorce has been so hard and they’ve been through so much already.  Surely one or two nights won’t hurt anything.  Right?  Yet a couple of nights has somehow turned into several months and before you know it your bed is no longer your own. Sound familiar?

When parents split up life changes tremendously for kids. It’s not uncommon for children to experience some anxiety and feel uncertain about what the future holds. As the day winds down those changes can really hit home for your children at bedtime. They may miss the parent they are not with, feelings of insecurity begin to creep in or thoughts shift to a host of worries about what’s happening in the family. While allowing your child to sleep with you may seem like an ideal way to deal with their nighttime angst, it’s a short-term fix that often leads to long-term problems. Letting kids sleep with you on a regular basis

  • Reinforces the idea that things are not okay.
  • Encourages dependency instead of promoting independence.
  • Makes transitioning between homes more difficult.
  • Keeps parents from dealing with their own sense of loneliness.
  • Promotes a child’s belief that they need to take care of you.

While it’s normal to want to comfort your kids through a tough time, when you’ve become their life-size “woobie” it’s time to take action. What can you do?

  • Make sure you’re not part of the problem.

Okay, let’s be honest. It can be quite comforting when you’re feeling lonely to have that little bugger snuggled up next to you. When kids sense a parent’s divorce distress they naturally seek to comfort them. Therefore, if you want your bed back, you may need to take a hard look at how you feel about changing the sleeping arrangements. Be sure you’re not sending your child a mixed message.

  • Evaluate what may be feeding your child’s anxiety

Along with concerns related to your separation or divorce spend time thinking about other changes that could be contributing to your child’s bedtime issues. Are they missing the parent who is not there? Are they getting enough time with both parents? Is their bedroom comfortable? Do they have a regular day-to-day routine or is the family schedule different every day?

  • Talk with your child.

If you feel the anxiety is directly related to your divorce,  =open the conversation by normalizing the problem for your children. You could say something like…Divorce is a big change in a family. When parents split up some kids have a hard time sleeping on their own. Reassure them while it’s a big change, over time things will get better and the family is going to be okay.

  • Include kids in creating a solution.

Once you’ve identified the problem, brainstorm with your child what might make his or her bedroom more comfortable. Remember to be creative and have fun. Ideas can range from making special dream catchers, to creating a special bedtime ritual to putting glow-in-dark stars on the ceiling. When my bonus daughter was having trouble transitioning between homes, we introduce her to “dream” music. Each night after tuck in we would turn on a CD of soothing lullabies before leaving the room.

Bottom line, kids need to hear from you part of being a healthy family involves everyone sleeping in their own bed.

  • Create a bedtime routine and stick to it.

Routines and structure are the cornerstones of kids feeling safe and secure.  Together create a bedtime routine that engages your child in winding down for the day (i.e. reading a bedtime story, singing a song, saying a nighttime prayer, or sharing three good things about their day.) Do your best to stay committed to your nighttime activities and schedule when they are with you.

  • Don’t cave when the going gets tough.

Getting kids to sleep in their own bed can be incredibly challenging even for the most capable of parents. Remember change takes time. Even if things go well the first couple of nights, keep in mind some backsliding is normal. It may be wise to have a plan in place for how you will handle a midnight visitor or endless amounts of pleading after you’ve tucked them in bed.  If this happens quietly walk your child back to bed without lecturing, getting angry, or engaging in a conversation. Also, avoid giving them an incentive to continue the behavior by lingering in their room.

Are you a divorced or single parent who struggled to get your kids to sleep on their own and finally won the battle of musical beds? How did you get your kids to sleep through the night?  I’d love to hear your story. 

Until next time…

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  1. Wayne Stocks on August 19, 2011 at 6:18 PM

    Great article Christina with a lot of practical advice. Little things like this can easily become routine because kids so crave the replacement of other routines lost during the divorce. I appreciate your hearts for these kids and for these parents. Keep up the great work!

    • Christina McGhee on August 19, 2011 at 10:21 PM

      Hi Wayne, Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with me and for the great feedback! Have a fabulous weekend.