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I Co-Sleep with My 4 Year Old, And That’s OK

I Co-Sleep, and That's OKI’ve finally come to accept that the parents who look like they know what they’re doing are only putting up a good front. The truth of the matter is that, when it comes to raising our kids, we’re all just feeling our way into uncharted territory.

Back in the spring I wrote about how I began co-sleeping with my son, Felix, who was then on the verge of 4. He’s officially four-and-a-half now, and my nighttime position remains the same. After reading next to my wife, I kiss her goodbye and head to Felix’s room, where I sleep in the bed beside his sleeping nook — he has a cozy nest of pillows and blankets on the floor. Every night, at some point between midnight and dawn, he crawls into bed with me.

Obviously — do I even need to say it? — this is not ideal. For starters, there’s a woman slumbering in the next room whom I’d rather be cuddling in the early morning hours. When Felix comes home with a cough or sniffle from school, he passes it right to me as he snores in my face. And during the past few nights, excited for the oncoming holiday, his hyper energy at 3AM has me up as well, tossing and turning. Up, and grumpy.

But what can I do? The kid has bad dreams, and what appears to be an almost overwhelming, unmanageable fear of being alone. Getting him to sleep requires stroking his back and holding his hand, at best for 5 or 10 minutes, but sometimes up to 20 or 30. On nights when I’m out late and not there for his first waking-up, he tears into my wife’s room screaming in terror. Sleeping next to him means that he makes it through the night without freaking out, and, to varying degrees, my wife and I are able to rest undisturbed as well. (She sleeps better than I do, for sure.) And while the co-sleeping is recent, it didn’t come from out of the blue. His whole life, Felix has never been a great sleeper.

My therapist advises me that, from a psychological perspective, co-sleeping isn’t ideal for a 4 year old. At this age, he tells me, Felix should be differentiating, moving further along in his independence. This might not be easy for him, or even pleasurable, but it’s my role as a parent to establish boundaries and instill discipline, which means training him to sleep alone.

How? Well, he says, establish a clear bedtime procedure. When my son follows it, reward him with praise and encouragement. When he breaks from it, make clear our disappointment. Don’t negotiate. Simply remove myself from his room. It’s ok to let him cry it out, or scream in fear.

But what about when he won’t stay in bed? I ask him. Do I restrain him? Or lock him in his room?

No one — not my therapist, or anyone else I’ve asked for advice — has a good answer for the specific, intense problems Felix has with being left alone, whether at night or anytime during the day, really. The only response I get is that while sleep training might not be pleasurable in the short-term, it’s what’s best for Felix in the long run.

Or is it? I’ve begun wondering who really knows what is best for their kids. I’m not talking about doctors and therapists and teachers here, I mean even moms and dads. There is no correct way of parenting, one magic strategy that will work for every child. Nor are moms and dads parenting machines who make decisions in an emotional vacuum. As a recent essay on The New York Times Motherlode suggests, sometimes parents make decisions based on their own fear or insecurity.

In my case, at least in this situation, I act out of a belief that people sometimes need a little more help than others do in order to overcome their fears. My son seems plagued by great anxieties, and it feels inhumane to let him experience such profound terror when it can easily be solved by nestling down next to him in bed. Is this such a great hardship? At some point, I’m sure, he’ll feel secure enough that I can sleep in my own room. I trust that I won’t have to go to college with him!

Maybe it’s a mistake to co-sleep for so long. Time will tell. All I know is that no one knows any better, really, how to deal with a child who struggles to control his extreme emotions. We’re all just feeling our way in the dark, trying, like my son, not to be scared, and seeking some comfort.

Shhh, I tell Felix at night, speaking just as much to myself as I am to him, It’s going to be ok. Just hang in there.

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