Amanda, a cute gregarious 6-year-old, and her tearful mom, Suzanne, stood in my office lobby when I greeted them and introduced myself. Suzanne immediately stated, “We have one small problem and I am afraid I am screwing my child up for the rest of her life”.
“Oh boy”, I thought to myself….
I instantly extended my hand to Amanda and, as she happily clutched it, she stated, “My mommy and daddy are having a mess over me”, with a huge, sweet smile on her face. Mom followed us to my office where I promptly led Amanda to the small desk and chair, grabbed my box of “little kid’s art stuff”, praying Amanda would be enthused with creating one of the art activities in the box.
Mom began with explaining the “marriage issues” between her and her husband – referring to their different parenting styles. After several minutes of what appeared to be clarification, she landed on the “small problem” she mentioned earlier.
Appearing exhausted and frustrated, she finally related to me, “Amanda has slept in our bed since we brought her home – it is ruining our marriage and I can’t get her out of our bed!”
Okay, I knew this was wasn’t a critical “screwed my child up for the rest of her life” issue, but more than likely, was the icing on the cake of other issues.
My immediate response, without filters, “This isn’t about your marriage. I agree a child in the parental bed causes different issues and should not have been started in the first place. But, this is about how your child already feels or will feel about herself in the near future”. I then invited her to consider the role Amanda was graciously being offered in the family: a role of equivalence and authority, leading to insecurity, or poor boundaries in the family unit, that could possibly follow Amanda throughout her life.
I began with explaining to Suzanne what I have learned over the years regarding “co-sleeping” meaning, children sleeping in their parent’s bed.
Before I ruffle some parents’ feathers or start receiving hate comments, let me strongly state co-sleeping is when there is a routine, recurring, habit, or pattern that has been created in the home.
There are two scenarios when speaking of co-sleeping. The first being intentional co-sleeping where parents have made it part of the family routine that the child sleep in their bed. The second being reactive co-sleeping where parents form routines where the child falls asleep in their bed and carefully move the child to their own bed or the child awakens in the night and they come in to sleep in the parent’s bed.
I believe we all know the dangers of sleeping with an infant in our beds. Come on, I have done it and, yes, had nightmares on more than one occasion that I rolled over on my child. I have been the single mom that let not one but two (eighteen months apart) of my kids sleep in my bed. I also own the fact that most of the time when this happened, it was for me! I was either exhausted and didn’t want to go through a long ordeal to try to get my kids to sleep, was worn out and knew I needed to get up and go to work in a matter of a few hours, didn’t want to get up and take them back to their own beds, and it was easier just to let them sleep with me. I convinced myself my children needed to be right by me, so they could develop a strong sense of security and peacefulness. I also experienced many nights of improper sleep, being kicked in the back and ribs, punched in the head, claiming only 6 inches of the bed as mine, and waking up with pee in my bed. We all needed restful peaceful sleep and we were not getting it.
I experienced an epiphany early on, thank God. I realized this whole co-sleeping deal was to benefit me, not my children. For about a year, my self-righteous self-talk was patting me on the back for sacrificing restful sleep while offering my children the security I felt they needed. Deep down covered by my own vindication, I knew better.
Whether intentional or reactive co-sleeping, when it becomes habitual behavior, it is extremely difficult to stop or transition a child out of the routine.
Patterns begin at birth with all of us. Yes, birth. We program our children by our own behaviors.
We create and instill routines and boundaries and by doing so, we send unintentional messages to our children – contributing to how they feel, act, react, and experience their world.
The message children can acquire from co-sleeping, is that they are not capable of going to sleep alone. They begin to feel they need the parent there to accomplish something they can do on their own. They convince themselves of an inability to relax, feel secure, and accomplish something quite simple to do.
Younger children create scenarios in their minds to justify or create the response they think they want. They construct fears and reasons why they can’t sleep alone. The scenarios become extremely real to the child and the parent reinforces the fear by inviting the child to sleep with them to comfort the child. A “monster in the closet”, “something under the bed”, “a robber or bad man”, or “I am scared” are comments most of us have heard from our children at least once. Children expeditiously learn exhibiting these fears reinforces their thoughts and they gain what they think they need at the time.
Older children (beginning around age 5) become so accustomed to sleeping with a parent,, they begin to believe the parent(s) is in need of their presence to be okay. It is a normal routine reinforced in the child until they realize not all kids have to sleep with their parents. This bleeds into and affects identity, maturity, development, and comparison of self to peers. Sleep-overs, activities after school, camps, extracurricular activities, or staying with grandparents or family members are all affected in some way to a child who believes they can’t sleep alone.
Unconsciously, the role of the nurturer and protector can gradually rearrange itself from the parent to the child. I have heard from kids’ countless times their concern for a parent being alone, unhappy in marriage, not wanting to leave a parent, or issues with their own role and separate identity apart from their parent(s).
By observing Amanda’s mom during the same session, her reality became adamantly clear when I asked Amanda, “Now why did your mommy bring you here today?” Amanda vivaciously responded, “Well, I told you mommy and daddy were having a mess over me”. When I asked her to explain, without hesitation, she responded, “There is a monster in my closet that only comes out when I sleep in my bed and my daddy doesn’t believe us and it is a mess”. I urged Amanda to clarify who “daddy doesn’t believe”. Amanda spontaneously replied, “Well, me and mommy – I can’t sleep in my bed, I have to sleep in mommy and daddy’s bed, so mommy won’t be scared”.
Amanda’s mom quickly made eye contact with me and asked, “So what do we do now?”
Continued in in my next blog…. Sleeping in Mommy and Daddy’s Bed – Transition