Children sometimes want to come into their parent's bed during the night. This is often because things have changed in the child's life. If parents don't want this, it can help to figure out why it is happening and make a plan to discourage it.

For some parents having nightly visitors is not a problem. They’d rather have another body in their bed than be up and down putting an upset kid back in their own bed. When the child goes straight back to sleep in their bed that makes it easier too.

Other parents would rather have their bed to themselves and struggle when their child wakes regularly and wants to join them, especially if they struggle with lack of sleep as a result.

Managing a full day of work after a night of broken sleep is tough. Stay-at-home parents struggle as well, and not only with their own tiredness. Spending all day with an irritable or grizzly child who – like their parents – is suffering from insufficient sleep is not fun.

Each whānau will decide what is right for them.

What causes nightly waking?

Figuring out what’s causing a child to wake up each night can be hard, especially if the child isn't aware of the cause themselves. Resist the temptation to work it out at 2am when the child is screaming.

Change is often the cause, but change can take many forms. If this is a new behaviour, figuring out what might be causing it can be easier – for example, the arrival of a new sibling means big changes for the older child.

Common causes of unsettled or wakeful nights in young children are:

  • physical changes – teething or sickness
  • emotional changes – a new sibling, a new partner in a parent's life, a shift in parental focus and attention, or even a fear of the unknown
  • intellectual changes – increased awareness and understanding of the world and the kōrero going on around them
  • environmental changes – a new teacher, the time spent in daycare, a new bed or bedroom, a new house, or new people staying in their home.

Waking may have become a nightly habit for some children – they go to sleep in their own bed, but as soon as they wake they go to join their parents. Figuring out why this is happening is more difficult for these children. Putting a plan in place is helpful in these cases.

Having a plan can help

Some parents don’t mind their children sleeping with them – and actually, some rather like it. For the parents who want a kid-free bed, having a plan is helpful.

Once parents have agreed on their plan, it’s important that all caregivers in the whānau stick with it.

Encourage whānau to think about:

  • the routines they've set up around bedtimes and how they can use these when the child wakes during the night
  • keeping a sleep diary that shows how much sleep a child is actually having – noting the times they went to sleep, woke (either in the morning or during the night) and any day naps
  • talking with the child during the day and at bedtime to reinforce whānau expectations – it’s much better then, than in the middle of the night when everyone is a bit groggy and grizzly
  • giving plenty of praise and encouragement to the child for following expectations
  • having things to help children if they wake – for example, a night light, a soft toy or cuddly or a few books to look at without getting out of bed
  • being clear with them about consequences and what their parents have agreed on – for example, bedroom doors might be shut
  • when they wake, keeping conversations and interactions to a bare minimum
  • staying calm when it can be so easy to get angry.

As boring and tiresome as it can be, for the really determined kid who keeps coming back time and time again, parents may have to set up a ‘lookout’ to encourage them to stay in bed – for example, putting a chair next to their child’s bed or at their bedroom door where the caregiver can relax while they’re ‘on watch’.

Conversation ideas

What are your thoughts about having extras in your bed during the night? Do you and your partner agree?
What have you noticed about your child's daytime behaviour during this period of unsettled nights?
What changes have happened in your whānau recently?
What happens when you put your child to bed for the first time?
How have you been responding to them when they wake?
Would you like some help to put a plan together?

Helpful resources for whānau