Three reasons your child doesn’t want to sleep on their own (and what you can do about it)

lion and lionesses resting on hill

I wasn’t blessed with a naturally “good sleeper”. My daughter came out switched on and ready to go, even as a really young baby, she found it hard to drift off and fall asleep. I let her sleep on me during her daytime naps, fed her to sleep every night (and back to sleep, each time she woke) and we co-slept for many many years. I was told then by well meaning family members that I was “making a rod for my own back” and, as it turns out, they were right.

My daughter does still want me around at bedtime. She’s 6 now and, most nights, will only go to sleep if I’m lying next to her and sometimes (although not that often) creeps into my bed at night. This is biologically normal behaviour at this stage in her life and there are lots of reasons that she still needs to feel close to me during the night. Here are just a few:

  1. Our modern narrative around sleep is all wrong, it’s our expectations that are the problem, not their sleep. If you’ve ever wandered why so much of our conversation as parents revolves around our kids sleep it’s because most of them have not been physically built to sleep through the night from 7am to 7pm. And there are many biological reasons for this. Of course there are some children that are more adept at self-settling (and we can train them to be able to do this), but thats the exception not the rule (this doesn’t mean that if you’re struggling with bedtimes or nighttime wakes that you shouldn’t do something about it, see more about that below).
  2. We are our children’s safe place. When they’re close to us, they know they’re safe. Have you ever seen how animal packs in the wild sleep close to each other? It’s a safety thing and our children are biologically driven to want to be near us and they’ll be more able to feel safe enough to fall asleep when they are. When we are responsive to our children’s basic needs in the early years the more potential there is for them to feel confident and secure in their relationships as adults (look at attachment theory to find out more). We may be “making a rod for our own backs” by accommodating this primary attachment (which can be SO hard on us at times) but this is about the long game.
  3. Children have shorter sleep cycles than we do. And often if they need something in the night (water, the toilet, a nappy change, reassurance, a hug) they won’t be able to get back to their next sleep cycle without it. If you’ve ever found yourself awake in the night and unable to get back to sleep because you need the toilet or starting thinking about work (and getting stressed) then you’ll know how it feels. Our children will very often need our help to address their needs before they’re able to get back to the business of sleeping. Sometimes they’re just not ready to attend to their own needs without our help yet.

We need to normalise what babies and children’s sleep naturally looks like. It is biologically normal for our children to want to be near us, and need us, in the night. We need to be clear on this.

Does that mean that we should never do any form of sleep training? NO! Does this mean that if we’re struggling and on the edge because of lack of sleep we shouldn’t try and find ways to improve their sleep? Definitely not.

Your relationship with your child involves you and them and the relationship needs to work for the both of you. If you’re worn out, burnt out and so exhausted that it’s affecting your mental and physical health, then of course for your own sake and your child’s you need to prioritise your own needs and take care of yourself. We also need to normalise this. To maintain our emotional health and vitality, sometimes we have to make decisions in our parenting based on what works for us, it’s not only about what our kids need. We need to be clear on this too. Whether that’s asking for support from friends and family or a sleep consultant, lowering your expectations and day time stress levels or managing bedtimes differently.

That’s why there is no one right way to parent. The decisions we make are based on so many factors at any one time. Hold firm in what you know is right for you, write it down in places where you need to see it and know remember that this parenting lark isn’t easy. Remember your mental health and wellbeing is the foundation of your families so you need to do what works for you.

If you need help winding down and switching off more easily at the end of the day, the bedtime journal will help, supporting a positive attitude around bedtime and aligning you more closely with the life you want to lead.

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