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3-Year-Old Won't Sleep Alone

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Q: My 3 1/2-year-old son protests about going to sleep and refuses to sleep in his own bed. He reads to himself at night. Any suggestions?

A: You haven't mentioned where your son prefers to sleep, but I assume it's with you and your husband. While I think that co-sleeping with parents is acceptable on an occasional basis and that families can certainly cuddle together in the morning, I do believe that children should and can learn to sleep alone. Your son's love of books can easily help you accomplish teaching him to sleep independently.

When you put him to bed tonight, explain that now that he's almost 4, he's a big boy and can sleep alone in his bed and you'll be proud of him. When he protests, ask him why he doesn't want to sleep alone. Most likely he'll say he's afraid of something, perhaps ghosts or "bad guys". You can reassure him that he is as safe as can be, and he may keep his light on until he falls asleep and you'll turn it off, except for a night-light, after he's sleeping. Tell him you're happy he enjoys his books (Is he actually reading or is he more likely looking through them?), and he's welcome to read them in his bed for half an hour and you'll set a timer to give him plenty of time to do that. Then stay with the plan. If your son comes out of his room, place a gate at his door so that he understands he can't come out.

He may call you at first. If he has a concern, you can come and reassure him once or twice, but after that, explain that you won't be coming back until he's asleep.

Give him a final kiss good night and be prepared for the tears and possible tantrum, but don't answer them. Eventually he'll fall asleep. The first night will be most difficult. The second night will be much easier and thereafter, he'll understand that he has no choice about where he sleeps. Once the new habit is established the entire problem will disappear, and then you can always welcome him back to your bed for a night if there's a frightening thunderstorm or a horrible nightmare.

Another possible alternative plan exists if he has a younger or older sibling. Sometimes sleeping in the same room as a sibling allays fears for both children, and there's no harm done by having siblings in the same room. They often enjoy sharing a room and that helps them cope with their fears until they mature enough to prefer their own room.

Finally, there is great potential in keeping a child in his room if his cat or dog sleeps in the room with him. They feel comforted by their loving pet or at least believe that their barking dog or meowing cat would scare a stranger away.

For free newsletters about raising preschoolers, and/or teaching children to sleep in their own bed, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each newsletter to address below. Dr. Sylvia B. Rimm is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the author of many books on parenting. More information on raising kids is available at www.sylviarimm.com. Please send questions to: Sylvia B. Rimm on Raising Kids, P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI 53094 or srimm@sylviarimm.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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