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Co-sleeping and discipline problems in other areas go hand-in-hand

Sometimes I wonder if parents understand the concept of robbing Peter to pay Paul; that taking the easy way out of a parenting situation today will probably come back to haunt you “tomorrow.”

That came to mind as I read a question recently submitted by the mother of a 3-year-old who wakes up screaming several times a night, wanting Mommy to sleep with her. On these occasions, she often comes into her parents’ room, thus disrupting the entire family because that is where her infant sibling sleeps, occupying the coveted place that was hers until she was two. In both cases, the child sleeps/slept in the parents’ bed because, Mom says, it is/was easier for her to nurse under those circumstances. Mom says she and her husband are both sleep-deprived and often react angrily to the daughter’s nightly uproar. They realize that’s not making matters any better, however, and report that in their more rational states of mind they promise their daughter chocolate (they apparently did not know that chocolate contains caffeine) and fish for her fish tank if she’ll just let them get a good night’s sleep. Needless to say, their daughter does not appreciate their generosity.

Proponents of co-sleeping claim it assists with bonding and attachment and other such nonsense, when no study done by an objective party has found any benefit to it whatsoever. Even the generally limp-wristed American Pediatric Society has come out against it. The fact is that children who co-sleep fail to learn how to put themselves to sleep, just as children who use pacifiers fail to learn how to comfort themselves. Problems of the very sort described by this nursing mother are typical when parents try to move a co-sleeping child into his or her own bed. In other words, having a child in bed with you during infancy and early toddlerhood may “solve” (avoid) the bedtime hassles associated with the age, but co-sleeping often leads to intractable sleep problems just as pacifiers often lead to tantrums, excessive crying, and petulance.

The second, but equally important, issue is boundaries. Discipline is leadership, not punishment-ship or consequence-ship, and effective leadership demands a boundary between the leader and the led. In the case of the parent-child/leader-led equation, the boundary should be permeable, but the parent absolutely must control when and how often the child is allowed through the boundary. The sanctity of the marital bed is the First Boundary, prerequisite to all others. When it does not exist, establishing any other boundaries will be nigh unto impossible, which is why co-sleeping and discipline problems in other areas go hand-in-hand (although co-sleeping parents are often in denial about said discipline problems).

I recommended to Mom that she move the infant out of the marital bed, not only to head off later sleep problems with a second child, but also to set the stage for the next step: a definitive, boundary-setting talk with the daughter. Mom and Dad need to sit her down and inform her that her doctor found out that her brother was sleeping in their bed, and...

“He told us that no child can sleep in our bed. He also told us that you must not get up in the night crying because we can’t get in bed with you either. You have to stay in your bed all night long, just like other children do. To help you remember, we’re putting a gate in your doorway. If you wake up at night, you can turn on a light and play in your room, but your doctor says you must be very quiet so that Mommy and Daddy don’t wake up. If you wake us up, your doctor says we have to put you back in your bed and he says you can’t (insert something the child enjoys doing every day) and you have to go to bed early the next night.”

Why blame it on the doctor? Because at this point the child recognizes and will comply readily with the doctor’s authority, so he/she is used as a transitional authority figure until the parents’ have their leadership feet on solid ground.

My experience with this non-reward approach is that some children take to it almost immediately while others put up the fight of their lives for two to three weeks. That’s actually a small price to pay, given what Paul will be demanding several years from now.

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