Sleep and the Family Bed


My four year old refuses to sleep in her own bed. In fact, she won't sleep anywhere unless she sleeps with us. We have tried everything and we are desperate. What do we do now?
San Carlos, California

Dr. Greene's Answer

Many families throughout history have chosen a “family bed.” In fact, in most cultures around the world today, a “family bed” is the norm. If that is a family’s choice, it can work very well. It is clear, however, that a “family bed” is not your choice. It also works well to teach children to sleep in their own bed. It does not work well, however, to tell children to sleep in their bed and then relent when they act up. This only teaches them that their persistence will be rewarded with a trip to your bed.

The most common ways of dealing with this situation include threats, punishment, bribes, speeches (“big boys and girls sleep in their own bed…”), etc. Usually these approaches don’t work. The best approach is to discover the underlying cause or causes for your daughter’s behavior. At some level your daughter herself knows why she doesn’t want to sleep in her own bed, even if she isn’t able to articulate what she is feeling. If you ask her out right what she is feeling, though, you might not get any valuable information.

A great way of discovering what your child is feeling is to play with her using dolls or action figures to represent members of a family. Have the characters act out several typical family situations: meal time, going to the park, driving in the car, etc. Enact several of these non-threatening situations, and let your child put words into the figures’ mouths. When you get to bed time, if your daughter is hesitant to talk, you can try speaking for the characters. If your daughter has gotten into the play, she will correct you if you give the characters motivations that are inaccurate from her perspective. Another approach is to encourage her to color or paint while she tells you about what she is creating. Be sure to allow her lots of time to open up and don’t react negatively if she says something you don’t want to hear.

The things you are most likely to find are: your daughter has night time fears, i.e. she is afraid of the dark, being alone, closet monsters, etc.; she is jealous of one parent or a sibling; she is afraid of losing your affection if she “grows up”; or some variation of one or more of these. All of these are very real and important in the life of a four year old.

If she is suffering from night time fears, give her tools that empower her to overcome her fears. Here are a few ideas: give her a flashlight to play with (especially during the day in a darkened room) to help overcome fear of the dark; give her a spray bottle filled with “monster spray” so she can shoot the monsters if they come out; record a tape of her favorite stories and songs that she can turn on whenever she is feeling alone or afraid (it is best if the recording is of your voice); give her a stuffed animal as big as she is to sleep with; or best of all, ask her for suggestions (perhaps to help the doll in her scenario). If the primary reason she wants to sleep with you is night time fears, you should be able to switch her into her own bed as soon as she has the tools to cope with her fears.

If you discover that she is jealous of one parent or a sibling, evaluate the situation and determine if she has reason to be jealous. If she has a younger sibling who is getting most of your attention during the day, she may feel the only time she “gets you” is at night. The best way you can help overcome her jealously is to pay special attention to her when she is not asking for it. If she reveals that she is afraid that she will lose your affection when she grows up, take stock of what you are communicating to her regarding growing up. You may inadvertently be sending her the message that you want her to stay a baby. If this is the case, consider how you can change her feelings by the way you communicate with her. In both of these situations, you will need to take some time for her feelings to change before you can move her into her own bed. When you do, you may need to make the change in several stages. The first few nights, she might sleep on the floor beside your bed. The next move might be right outside your door, then into her own bed. The large stuffed animal or the tape recording of your voice may help ease the transition.

With awareness and understanding of what your child is feeling, you can turn this difficult situation into something that will help your daughter feel much better about herself and much closer to you. It will be well worth the time and effort. Take heart, there is light at the end of the tunnel!

Last medical review on: April 06, 2009
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
Get Dr. Greene's Wellness RecommendationsSignup now to get Dr. Greene's healing philosophy, insight into medical trends, parenting tips, seasonal highlights, and health news delivered to your inbox every month.