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Sleeping with child creates big problems

Q: I am adopting a 19-month-old child who has had problems going to sleep on her own since the day I brought her home. At first, I sat next to her while she went to sleep. Two months ago, because of upheaval in my life, she was put in foster care for ten days. Ever since, she screams like crazy if I even take her in her bedroom. She has been sleeping with me since, and I’m not getting a good night’s sleep. With all of the changes that have happened in her life, however, I hate to put her in her own bed and make her cry herself to sleep. What should I do?

A: I realize how tempting it is to take the easy way out where bedtime is concerned. It’s the end of a long day; you’re tired; and so on. Nonetheless, instant-gratification strategies like rocking an infant to sleep, lying down with or sitting with a child until she falls asleep, do nothing but create bigger problems in the long run.

In your case, the real problem is not that she doesn’t like going to sleep without you next to her. The real problem is that because of all she’s gone through in her short life, you “hate to put her in her own bed and make her cry.” As long as you feel sorry for her, more and ever bigger problems are going to pile up on the bedtime problem. Do you want to be dealing, five years from now, with a child who throws wild tantrums when you deny her something, will not obey you, and treats you with general disrespect? The answer, of course, is no; in which case, you had better get control of the bedtime situation, and there is no better time than the present in which to do so.

As for the disruptions in your life that led to her being in foster care for ten days, one will never know whether or not that contributed to an exacerbation of your daughter’s bedtime problems. What’s for sure is that she has no memory of either the circumstances that led to her being in foster care and no memory of what happened during those disruptive ten days. Foster homes are carefully monitored by local child protection agencies. I think it’s reasonable to say that during those ten days, she was well taken care of—that they were not, by any stretch of the imagination, “traumatic.”

The fact is, having set the bedtime precedents you have set, for you to now take this problem in hand and solve it is going to involve some crying on your daughter’s part; maybe a lot. The solution is to begin treating her like a durable, resilient, normal child, which she no doubt is, and to stop treating her like “damaged goods” that require special handling. Put her to bed no later than 7:30 p.m. and leave the room after a short goodnight ritual. Every five minutes that she continues to scream, go back to her, comfort her as well as you can within the span of one minute (no longer!), and leave again whether you have succeeded or not. Do not pick her up during this time. When her screams turn to pitiful whimpering, stop going in and wait to see if she falls asleep. If the screaming begins anew, apply yourself anew to the five minute interval.

The first night you do this should be a Friday, because you aren’t going to get a lot of sleep, but if you are able to stay the course, your daughter should be out of the woods within a week or so. The good news is this problem is relatively easy to turn around with a 19-month-old. Wait another year, and the problem will be that much worse and far more tenacious.

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