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7 year old doesn't eat at meals & won't sleep alone

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Dr. Markham,
2 issues I need advice on...
1st, My 7 year old son refuses to even try to sleep in his own bed or go to bed without me. How can I break this bad habit with the least amount of stress for both of us?
2nd, It takes him an hour to eat only a fraction of his food. In less than an hour after eating, he is asking if there is anything to eat. Both my ex-husband and I are at our last rope with this behavior.


Dear Dena,
No one ever said parenting was easy! I can see why both of these behaviors would drive you crazy, but I assure you that both are developmentally normal/age appropriate, and he will outgrow them both!

Let's start with your food question. Either your son is a grazer or this is a control issue. Many humans are not biologically designed to eat big meals, particularly as small children. Either way, you don't want him to stuff himself to bursting, and you don't want to get into power struggles with him about eating. You decide what foods he can eat, but he has to decide how much food to eat at any given time. Fights about food intake lead to ugly issues later in life, and are battles you will never win.

So as I see it, you have two choices:

1. Expect him to eat three meals a day plus a couple of snacks. This option will be frustrating for both of you, because he has already proven that he has a hard time doing it, and it creates a power struggle.

2. Forget about the concept of meals for him for now. You and your ex-husband (depending whose house he's at) can go ahead and have meals, and of course expect him to sit and eat with you, but you shouldn't expect him to eat much at this point. Certainly don't drag out the meal to let him finish. When you are done with the meal, he can sit and read and finish his food if he wants. OR if he feels full, then take the food away and excuse him from the table.

When he asks for food an hour later, you can pull out the same food he didn't eat at the meal and reheat it for him in the microwave. If that is too difficult, or unappetizing, then give him something else that is healthy: a yogurt, a can of soup, a frozen entrée, some raw carrots or frozen peas. Stop thinking in terms of full meals and instead focus, in any given eating event, on getting some protein, or veggies (meaning primarily Vitamins A and C), or iron, or calcium, into him.

In other words, he may live on eight or so small snacks a day, one of which may be a glass of milk and some carrots, one of which may be a scrambled egg or a baked sweet potato. There's no reason he needs to eat a big meal. But keep it simple, don't stress yourself out about it, and there is no reason you have to turn his snacks into meals by making a big production out of them. He can sit and eat and look at a book. Make it easy on yourself.

It's important to keep having him attend meals with you, though, so that he gets used the the idea of meals and conversation and manners. You'll also find, over time, that he focuses more on the food at those meals and stops needing as many snacks. In fact, if my sixteen year old is any example, there will come a time when he will inhale his food at meals and ask for several more servings!

Re the sleep issue, you really can begin to break this habit. I do need to warn you that it will take self discipline on your part, because it will take a few months to complete the process. But at the end of that time your son will be comfortable sleeping in his bed all night.

Your first step is to talk with your son. Introduce the idea that now that he is seven he needs to learn to sleep by himself. Seven year olds go to school, they learn to read, they learn to ride a bike, and they learn to go to sleep by themselves. Reassure him that you will always be there if he needs you in the night or when he is falling asleep, and that you will help him learn. Praise him for any progress and tell him how proud you are that he is learning to sleep by himself. He needs some motivation to do what is, after all, a hard thing for most kids.

Any other motivation you can give him will also be valuable; some kids respond very well to little prizes in the morning. If he shows any interest in eventually having sleepovers, you can praise his progress toward them. Also remember to provide plenty of physical closeness and snuggles during the day, to make up for his independence at night.

Begin with a bedtime routine that gives your son a chance to wind down: maybe a bath, 2 stories, tucking in his stuffed animals, and a backrub. Make sure you begin early enough in the evening that he hasn't gotten his "second wind" yet. I find that bedtime routines usually take a full hour if they include a bath.

Step one is to hold your son until he falls asleep -- but you can't lie- down, which puts you in danger of falling asleep. Use the time to meditate, if you can, or think of something delightful that you can look forward to. It often helps to give kids a large stuffed animal or pillow to hold and curl around, to substitute for them being able to twine around you. But in the beginning, definitely hold him so that he feels held, just don't lie down with him.

Once he's used to falling asleep with you sitting in bed by him and holding him, the next phase is to touch, but not hold, your child. Kids resist this step, but eventually get used to falling asleep this way. Eventually, he will be able to fall asleep with you simply holding his hand, or putting your hand on his forehead.

When he can fall asleep being touched but not held, begin to sit next to him while he falls asleep, without actually touching him. In the beginning, you will probably need to sit close enough to him that he can touch you briefly if he wants to reach out. Make a big deal of how proud you are that he is able to do this.

Finally, begin sitting further and further away, until, eventually, you are outside the bedroom door (which could take a month!) I used a flashlight to read, which was a welcome relief from sitting in the dark. Another variation on this process is to move quietly around the room, straightening up or folding laundry, while he falls asleep. This provides a sense of security, without him depending on your physical proximity.

After he is used to falling asleep without you touching him, the process will move faster. Then you can leave the room for longer and longer periods ("I'll be right back, I just remembered I have to check the laundry") beginning by sitting right outside his door with a good book.

You will probably find that some days he backslides and needs you to touch him again. That's ok, it won't sabotage your overall momentum, as long as it isn't frequent and the next day you're back to your program.

Night wakings usually diminish as kids learn to put themselves to sleep, because when they wake slightly at night they're no longer looking around for mom. While your son is still needing you to fall asleep, however, he will probably keep waking up at night. If he does wake and need you in the night, you can minimize his repeating that behavior by returning him to his own bed, and repeating your bedtime practice of sitting near him (most parents lie down on the rug with a blanket) while he falls asleep. I know this means you will be spending some nights on the floor in his room. But you are steadily moving in the direction of nighttime independence in a way that protects your son's sense of security, so in my view it's worth it as long as you're making steady progress in the right direction.

I hasten to add that many parents who are teaching their child to fall asleep by himself just let him into their bed if he awakens at night, and there is no problem with doing that. It will not sabotage what you are doing at bedtime, and once he is comfortable putting himself to sleep, he will generally be able to do that at night also.

Sometimes a divorce, and shuttling between two homes, causes kids extra insecurity that slows this process, but they will still learn to sleep by themselves if you are clear about your intention that they are ready to do so and need to do so. You may have to offer lots of extra connection and reassurance during the day, though.

This gradual program provides a sense of security while at the same time teaching your son to feel comfortable falling asleep without your physical proximity. Eventually, you’ll find that he is asleep almost as soon as his head settles on the pillow – and you’ll be amazed to find you actually have an evening!

I wish you and your son every blessing.
Dr. Laura

Dr. Laura,

This seems like a very labor intensive process. Is it really so traumatic to just tell him to go to sleep and let him cry if necessary? He is seven, after all. -- Teresa


I agree that it is a labor intensive process. It is designed to be gradual and gentle, and to build the child's self esteem and confidence.

Is letting them just cry it out cold turkey harmful? Every child is different, but I have never let my children cry themselves to sleep and I cannot personally imagine doing so. I have also spoken to adults who cannot fall asleep without the company of a TV because they were left alone, terrified, in the dark without being given the help of being taught to fall asleep feeling safe. I have also spoken with adults who still carry shame from being told they were babies when they struggled with nighttime fears.

I personally think that a seven year old who insists on mom lying down with him and who cannot go to sleep by himself is on the sensitive end of the spectrum and needs a little extra help. In addition, he has been through a divorce. He is expressing a need that should be taken seriously. NOT given into, in the way he wants it, which is to sleep with Mom every night. But definitely taken seriously, in the sense of "I know this is hard for you and I am going to help you learn to do it."

Dr. Laura

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