- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006

Our 28-month-old daughter recently started waking up three or four times a night and coming into our room crying. We respond by telling her it’s still nighttime and walking her back to her bed. She immediately goes back to bed and back to sleep. Sometimes all we have to do is tell her to go back to bed and she will put herself back to sleep.

We are having difficulty knowing the motivation behind this behavior because she doesn’t want us to lie down with her, nor is she angling to get into our bed. Can you help us understand this and deal with it more effectively?

A: Stop trying to figure out why your daughter has developed this nocturnal habit. The attempt to divine motivation behind a child’s behavior is what I call “psychological thinking” — a labyrinthine mental process that rarely, if ever, results in anything but parental confusion and insecurity. Psychological thinking also paralyzes the ability to act with authority.

This is not complicated, so let’s not complicate it with a lot of nonproductive speculation. Suffice to say that your daughter’s sleep patterns are changing. She wakes up in the night, probably somewhat disoriented, and needs to be reassured that the two of you are still there. So, she comes into your room. My most erudite explanation: That’s just the way it is.

Some problems have no ready-made solution, which is why I sometimes tell parents who are asking my advice, “You’re just going to have to muddle through this one.” In fact, it sounds to me as if you’re muddling just fine. When your daughter comes into your room, you respond authoritatively by taking her or directing her back to her room. You must be doing so calmly and confidently (i.e. authoritatively) because she accepts your direction and goes back to sleep.

Personally, I would be content with this, knowing this is just a bump in the road that will resolve itself in fairly short order, but here’s another idea, for what it’s worth.

If you don’t have one already, buy a gate you can install easily in her doorway. Show her the gate and tell her that when she wakes up and gets out of bed, the gate means she is supposed to get back into bed and go back to sleep. Tell her this several times during the day and again when you put her to bed. Strengthen the new program by holding several pretend practice sessions during the day.

If she wakes up and stands at the gate crying, go to her, but don’t cross the gate if you can help it. Ask, “What are you supposed to do when you come to the gate?” and direct her back to bed. This approach might bring about a quicker resolution. On the other hand, if it’s obvious the gate is making the problem worse, which it may do, go back to muddling. In the final analysis, this too will pass.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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