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The Dangers of Co-Sleeping With an Older Child and 6 Strategies to Stop It

Many exhausted parents tell me that although co-sleeping may have seemed like a good idea at one point, they recognize once entrenched in the never ending pattern that the opposite of a restful night sleep occurs and in fact, co-sleeping creates additional stress for the entire family.
07/14/2015 08:03am ET | Updated July 14, 2016
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More and more I see families in my private practice who come for help with their child's anxiety. They present with a child who is worried about life, in clinical terms a child with generalized anxiety. The child fears many things including: Being alone, what others think of them, how they will perform, and trying new things. Often when I probe deeper I learn that for many of these children, more nights than not, they are sleeping in their parents' bed and into their double digits years.

When I inquire about this sleeping arrangement, parents offer that they try to stop it but their child is so anxious that they have trouble sleeping alone even at nighttime, when they expected their child would be sleeping alone by age 10 for example. These are not families that are opting to sleep with their children because of philosophical reasons, these parents feel hostage to their child's fears, ones that are intensified at nighttime when being alone in bed makes an already anxious child's mind wander into dangerous, scary and neurotic territory.

Many exhausted parents tell me that although co-sleeping may have seemed like a good idea at one point, they recognize once entrenched in the never ending pattern that the opposite of a restful night sleep occurs and in fact, co-sleeping creates additional stress for the entire family.

Recent studies indicate that near epidemic proportion of children are co-sleeping with parents today. According to Parenting's MomConnection, a surprising 45% of moms let their 8- to 12-year-olds sleep with them from time to time, and 13% permit it every night.

And according to the Canadian Pediatric Society "behavioral insomnia" is a medical diagnosis used to describe 20-30 percent of kids who have trouble falling or staying asleep, and who end up in their parents' bed at one point during the night. The impact of chronic co-sleeping on a person's functioning--younger and older--can run the gamut from increased dependency and anxiety to memory loss, fatigue, low energy, depression, and obesity.

While many times parents own anxiety interferences with their ability to set limits with an anxious child at bedtime, the reasons parents allow older children to co-sleep are complex and not completely understood. It is true that children today have higher levels of anxiety than previous generations. Reasons for this include higher divorce rates, frequent transitions, more over scheduling, greater academic pressures, the influence of being plugged in 24/7.

As a result of co-sleeping into later years, children today are less self-reliant. Many preteen children don't yet know how to be alone at bedtime and thus they lack self-reliance. When kids don't benefit from the experience of looking inside themselves as a resource, they focus on external mechanisms to manage stress and anxiety. They do not develop a healthy internal locus of control putting them at risk for low self-esteem. When parents band aid nighttime anxiety symptoms by allowing co-sleeping, they often assume that kids will naturally grow out of it and many do not.

While children suffer secondary social challenges such as not feeling comfortable at sleepovers with friends, and attending overnight class trips, and other independent activities, families and parents suffer from impact of parents living with chronic sleep deprivation. In addition to the obvious stress on the marital relationship, the physiological and psychological well-being of parents are compromised after years of living without a restful night of sleep.

Sleep deprivation impacts brain functioning in that it adds to the challenge that parents have in understanding how to change the status quo and resume control over night time and their bed.

Here are 6 actions that parents can take to break the co-sleeping cycle:

1. Recognize the severity of the problem and commit to changing it.

2. Expect resistance and be prepared to use whatever resources are available to stick to and achieve the goal of everyone sleeping in their own bed every night. For example, have friends or relatives who are not part of the negative cycle put the children to bed at night.

3. Use a behavioral retraining model with gradual removal of parental comfort and presence at bedtime replaced with parental attention and nurturing before and after bedtime and self-soothing strategies for children to use before and during bedtime. A relaxation tape for children and nighttime reading of a fun book can help alleviate anxiety and distract a worried child. These breathing techniques by Dr. Andrew Weil aid in relaxation Dr.Weil's 3 Step Breathing.

4. Discuss the importance of changing the behavior with the children. Emphasize parents' needs to improve their own sleep and that their bed is for parents only. In addition, discuss the importance of children being able to sleep independently as related to their ability to participate in age appropriate activities.

5. Recognize that a child's anxiety, lower self-esteem and dependency behaviors during the day time are related to their inability to have the confidence to sleep alone at night. This helps motivate everyone to change the co-sleeping habit even though the older the child is the more resistance will occur.

6. With consistent use of strategies and limits regarding sleeping in their own bed, most children will learn typical sleep habits and patterns and remain in their beds for the duration of the night within 1-2 months. Parents should seek professional help if with effort the co-sleeping cycle is not broken.