Q: In a recent column, you described our five-year-old daughter. She is in bed at 6:30 in the evening but usually wakes up during the night and wants to talk to us about whatever is on her mind. We both work and need our sleep, so that’s a huge problem. She very energetic and emotional during the day. To get her to calm down and sleep through the night we’ve tried melatonin, chamomile tea, and a homeopathic. Sometimes, they work. Usually, not. Since she is too scared to sleep in a room of her own, both she and her one-year-old sister sleep in our bedroom, but in their own beds. Any ideas on how we can get her to sleep through the night?
A: I hope you consulted with your daughter’s pediatrician before starting to dose her with melatonin and a homeopathic substance before she goes to bed. Most studies find no downside to giving melatonin to children older than three, but Australian pediatricians recommend against it for children of any age. As for a homeopathic, you most definitely should consult with a pediatrician. Chamomile tea is fine. My wife swears by it. So did Peter Rabbit.
Having said that, I really don’t think your daughter’s night-waking has anything to do with her daytime energy or low melatonin levels in the evening. I think the problem is that you have her in your bedroom. That’s not a good idea at all. And what, pray tell, does it mean that she is “too scared to sleep in a room of her own”? Whatever explanation you give, my next question is, “So what?”
Along with thousands of children across our fruited plains, your daughter is afraid of sleeping in her own room for one reason: you have let her sleep in yours. The unknown is usually scary to a child. The fact remains: your daughter is not going to become comfortable sleeping in her own room until you insist that she do so. Do you think she’s one day going to say, as you’re putting her to bed in your room, “You know what Mom and Dad? I think I’m ready to sleep in my room!” Let me assure you, the odds of that happening anytime soon are slim to none.
She wakes up during the night and wants to engage in conversation with you because you’re right there! This is a bad habit, nothing more, and it’s likely to get much worse as time goes on. Also, getting her to go to sleep in her own space is going to get much, much more difficult as time goes on. The time to act is now!
Put her down in her own bed, in her own room. Simply tell her that “the doctor” said that five-year-old children can’t sleep in their parents’ rooms. Say, “The doctor also said that you might need to scream for a while to get used to it, and that’s just fine. Go ahead and scream all you want. We’ll be right down the hall, in the living room, making sure everything is okay.”
I won’t go into the research-based justification for invoking a third party whose authority your daughter already recognizes and giving her permission to scream, but take my word for it, it works. Well, it works when the child’s parents don’t give in and let her back into their room.
You’ll have to listen to some agonized screaming for a week or so, but in the end it will work a whole lot better than melatonin. Chamomile tea? That’s a somewhat different story. After all, Peter Rabbit recommends it.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.