Q. My 4-year-old son is afraid to sleep in his room alone at night. He ends up coming into our room at least two times a night wanting to sleep with us. Any suggestions on what we can do?
-- Chris Daly, Minneapolis
A. It's up to Mom and Dad to decide whether their child's sleeping habits need to change, experts and readers say. Some parents don't think three's a crowd; others are tired of losing sleep and intimacy.
"Realistically, there's no hard-core rule," says Dr. Javad H. Kashani, one of four authors of a new parenting book, "Raising Happy Children" (Three Rivers Press, $14). "It depends on the family."
One compromise that's popular with readers: A child who wakes up during the night is allowed to set up camp in his parents' bedroom.
A sleeping bag at the foot of the bed has given the children of Lynda T. Morley of Plano, Texas, the comfort of closeness without the discomfort of a crowded bed. A similar approach has worked for Eve Neubauer of Schaumburg, Ill.
"I have four children, and I always kept a sleeping bag by the bed and told them they were welcome to sleep there, but they couldn't sleep in my bed," Ms. Neubauer says. "It always did the job and it didn't wake us up."
Many kids who cannot get back to sleep on their own are tough to manage at bedtime, and their parents stay with them until they fall asleep, says Charles E. Schaefer, co-author of "Winning Bedtime Battles: How to Help Your Child Develop Good Sleep Habits" (Carol Publishing Group, $9.95; Canada, $12.95).
An important part of the solution: Focus on an organized bedtime routine that teaches your child to fall asleep on his own, suggests Schaefer, a psychology professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J. Otherwise he won't be able to get back to sleep without your help during the night.
To break your child's habit of nightly visits, Schaefer suggests: "Escort him back to his room firmly, with minimal talking. For some kids, that's all they need."
It's too late if you catch your child after he's been snuggling in your bed, Schaefer says. Put a bell on your door to alert you, and escort him back as soon as he enters your bedroom. Repeat the process as needed.
To become independent -- and ready for sleep-overs and real camping trips -- children need to learn that they are safe at night even when they're apart from their parents. To help a child make an easier transition to being a self-soother, Schaefer suggests that parents:
* Offer options, such as a stuffed animal, a nightlight, or a flashlight next to the bed.
* Give specific expectations: "Don't ask me to come into your room, and don't come into my bed."
* Remind your child that nighttime is for sleeping, and that a good night's sleep is important for each family member.
* Offer incentives, such as a star chart that leads to a prize.
Other solutions from readers:
* "A trusted stuffed animal and 'monster spray' always worked for us," says Cindy Urquhart of Raleigh, N.C. Fill a bottle with water, label it "monster spray" and spritz his room at bedtime, she suggests.
* Chase away loneliness by allowing the child to keep a small pet in his room, suggests Margaret Flacy of Dallas.
If a child refuses to stay in his room, a parent needs to figure out whether the child is lonely and just wants company or has a specific fear that the parent can help with -- such as using a night light or a dimmer switch if the problem is a fear of the dark, the experts say.
"Be understanding and patient, not mad," says Kashani, a professor and chief of the division of psychiatry at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine.
With new fears, Kashani says, think about whether your child's day has been frightening, what kind of news or movies he's seeing, and any arguments in the home. If sleeping problems persist, the family may need short-term counseling, the experts say.
Can you help?
"I have a 5-year-old daughter. Her father and I recently separated and are going to be divorced. She seems to be taking it pretty hard," writes Sherri Smith of Tacoma, Wash. "She wants to be with her daddy and seems angry with me. I've been letting her go with her father when she asks, but I feel like I'm losing her and she's only 5."
If you have tips or a question, call toll-free (800) 827-1092, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Parent to Parent, 4709 Dillingham Court, Raleigh, N.C. 27604.