Sleeping Alone or Away from Home

Anxious children and teens may prefer to fall and/or remain asleep with a parent or caregiver, either in the same room or even in the same bed. This gives them a sense of comfort and security, and for some parents the experience is mutual. While this practice is not necessarily problematic and may be supported in certain cultures and communities, it becomes problematic if anxiety is at the heart of these choices. Being a calm, confident and independent sleeper is a particular challenge for children and teens with separation anxiety. These youth may plead, beg or have a tantrum in order to sleep in your bed. These behaviours only serve to increase anxiety, create tension and irritability throughout the household, and prevent youth from learning to conquer their fears. In addition to fears about sleeping alone, many children and teens with separation anxiety are afraid to sleep away from home. They may be afraid to go to camp, have a sleepover at a friend’s house, or even stay with a grandparent. When anxiety is creating sleep disturbance in you and your child’s life, the goal is to increase your child’s confidence about being able to self-soothe and get to sleep independently, as well as being able to enjoy routine sleep away experiences.

 

3 Steps to Helping Your Child Sleep Alone or Away From Home

Step 1: Preparing your child

Before starting any new plan in your home, it is important that your child understand what is going to happen and why. To prepare your child to sleep alone, you can read books about being brave at night and express confidence that your child can be brave too. For teens, explain that sleeping alone is a normal part of growing up, and although it might sound scary, it is important to face this fear gradually. Review the information in Naming the Bully and Talking to Your Child or Teen about Anxiety to explain how anxiety is stopping your child from being in charge of his/her bedtime and sleep. You can begin preparing for this change together by making your child’s bedroom more appealing. Be creative, and encourage your child to decorate his or her room with enjoyable and fun things (e.g. pictures, posters, a nightlight, wind chimes, and/or a bedspread in a favorite colour).

For youth with fears about sleeping away from home, you can explain to your child why this is something s/he is capable of doing and might enjoy. Emphasize the fun to be had on sleepovers with friends, or staying at grandma’s house and watching late-night movies. Some children and teens might want to sleep away from home, but are too worried or anxious to try it. If this is the case with your child, provide empathy and listen non-judgmentally to your child’s worries. Remember, these fears are very real to your child. 

Next, help your child problem-solve and plan. For example, if your child is worried about having a panic attack, ask, “What could you do if that did happen? Could you go to the bathroom and practice your calm breathing? Could you tell your friend or her mom and maybe talk to her for a little bit? Let’s come up with a plan together.” Have your child write out the plan, and take it to the sleepover in a secret pocket. Other concerns can be addressed in a similar, logical way. This type of discussion and planning can be helpful, and sleeping away from home will feel less scary.

 

Step 2: Establishing routines

As a parent, you probably already have a bedtime routine with your child that may involve reading a story and goodnight kisses. This entire routine should take place in your child’s bedroom. Even if your child is not ready to sleep alone right away, it will be easier if your child is used to getting ready for bed in his/her own bedroom, rather than in your bedroom. For more information on bedtime routines, see Happy Home

Like a bedtime routine, a sleep away routine can be an important way to reduce unnecessary anxiety. Encourage your child to create a sleep away bag that contains a variety of fun and soothing items. This can include a cool sleeping bag, fun toys, favorite stuffed animal, and coping cards or calm breathing or relaxation audios.  On the day of, you might have a set routine to ensure the sleep away is a success. This can include having an active day so your child is more likely to be sleepy at bedtime, or being dropped off with enough time to play and become distracted rather than sitting and worrying.

 

Step 3: Gradually facing fears

It may be unrealistic to expect your child to sleep alone immediately or to attend a sleep over right away. Instead, you can make a Facing My Fears plan {embed link} with your child, with a final goal of, “Sleeping in my own bed for the entire night,” or, “Staying over at Megan’s for the night.” When asking your child to gradually face his/her fears, it is important to progress at your child’s pace. Every child and teen is different, and will be able to start on a different step. Review the information outlined in Facing My Fears {embed link} for additional guidance.

Some suggestions for first steps for sleeping alone might include:

  • Having your child sleep on a cot in your bedroom
  • Having your child sleep on a cot near the door of your bedroom or on the floor in a sleeping bag
  • Having your child sleep on a cot just outside your bedroom (with the door open)
  • Having your child sleep in his or her bedroom, with you staying in a chair in the room until h/she falls asleep (do not lie down with child in his or her room)
  • Having your child sleep in his or her bedroom, with a nightlight, with you staying in the room for 10 minutes

Some suggestions for first steps for sleeping at a friend’s home might include:

  • Have a friend come over and spend the whole day at my house
  • Have a friend sleep over at my house
  • Have 2 friends sleep over at my house
  • Go to a friend’s house and play until dinnertime but go home
  • Go to a friend’s house to play, stay for dinner and dress in PJs and watch a movie but then go home
  • Stay over night at a friend’s house, calling mom once, if feeling anxious
  • Stay over night at a friend’s house, without calling mom

      

Tips

  • Consider use of rewards to increase your child’s motivation to work toward becoming an independent sleeper, and/or to sleep away from home. Review information outlined in the Rewarding Bravery section for ideas.
  • Strive for consistency. Allowing for the occasional visit to your bed in the middle of the night, or letting your child share your bed when your partner is away on a trip, can significantly disrupt weeks of hard work. This allowance can send a confusing message, making your child believe that may be you don’t have the confidence in him/her to sleep alone, or that you think there is something to be afraid of that should warrant a shared bed. Make a plan and stick to it. If nighttime visits occur, gently guide your child back to his/her bed and encourage coping via use of tools from your child’s M.A.P. This can include listening to a recording of calm breathing or muscle relaxation, coping statements that are posted near his/her bed, or reminders of the points plan.
  • If your child expresses a desire for closeness as the reason to fall or remain asleep together, you can meet this need but not at bedtime. Invite your child into your bed first thing in the morning, when you can snuggle together and check in about the day ahead. Or set aside time after dinner for a snuggle under the covers on the couch, perhaps enjoying some reading time together.
  • Some children will complain of nightmares.Your child may come to you for comfort in the middle of the night. For more information on how to deal with nightmares, see Coping with Nightmares
  • Some children may experience occasional bed wetting, which makes them quite anxious and embarrassed at the prospect of a sleepover. Fortunately, many households are equipped to manage a wet bed. Talk with the parent of your child’s friend, and ensure there are items in place to manage this, such as a mattress cover, change of bedding, and your child’s assurance that s/he can seek help from an adult at any time of night. You also can talk with your physician about a single use nasal spray administered to prevent nighttime bedwetting.