The Monsters Under the Bed Are Real: Why Children Protest Bedtime
Forced Bedtimes: An Evolutionary Mismatch
(Image from the Monsters Inc. movie by Pixar. This article first appeared in Peter Gray’s blog in Psychology Today and is reposted here with his permission.)
Infants and young children in our culture regularly protest going to bed. They make all sorts of excuses. They say they are not tired, when in fact they obviously are tired. They say they are hungry, or thirsty, or need to hear a story (and then one more story)–anything to stall. They talk about being afraid of the dark, or afraid of monsters in the closet or under the bad. Little babies without language, who can’t yet describe their fears or try to negotiate, just scream.
Why all this protest? Many years ago, the famous behavioral psychologist John B. Watson argued, essentially, that such behavior is pathological and derives from parents’ overindulgence and spoiling of children. Remnants of that view still persist in books on baby care, where the typical advice is that parents must be firm about bedtime and not give in. This, the experts say, is a battle of wills, and you, as parent, must win it to avoid spoiling your child.
But clearly something is missing in this explanation from the experts. Why do infants and young children choose to challenge their parents’ will onthis particular issue? They don’t protest against toys, or sunlight, or hugs (well, usually not). Why do they protest going to bed, when sleep is clearly good for them and they need it?
The answer begins to emerge as soon as we leave the Western world and look at children elsewhere. Bedtime protest is unique to Western and Westernized cultures. In all other cultures, infants and young children sleep in the same room and usually in the same bed with one or more adult caregivers, and bedtime protest is non-existent.. What infants and young children protest, apparently, is not going to bed per se, but going to bed alone, in the dark, at night. When people in non-Western cultures hear about the Western practice of putting young children to bed in separate rooms from themselves, often without even an older sibling to sleep with, they are shocked. “The poor little kids!” they say. “How could their parents be so cruel?” Those who are most shocked are people in hunter-gatherer societies, for they know very well why young children protest against being left alone in the dark.
Until a mere 10,000 years ago we were all hunter-gatherers. We all lived in a world where any young child, alone, in the dark, would have been a tasty snack for nighttime predators. The monsters under the bed or in the closet were real ones, prowling in the jungle or savannah, sniffing around, not far from the band’s encampment. A grass hut was not protection, but the close proximity of an adult, preferably many adults, was protection. In the history of our species, infants and young children who grew frightened and cried out to elicit adult attention when left alone at night were more likely to survive to pass on their genes to future generations than were children who placidly accepted their fate. In a hunter-gatherer culture only a crazy person or an extremely negligent person would leave a small child alone at night, and at the slightest protest from the child, some adult would come to the rescue.
When your child screams at being put to bed alone at night, your child is not trying to test your will! Your child is screaming, truly, for dear life. Your child is screaming because we are all genetically hunter-gatherers, and your child’s genes contain the information that to lie alone in the dark issuicide.
This is an example of the concept of evolutionary mismatch. We have here a mismatch between the environment of our evolutionary ancestors, in which our genetic being was shaped, and the environment in which we live today. In the environment of our evolutionary ancestors, a child alone at night was in serious danger of being eaten. Today, a child alone at night is not in serious danger of being eaten. In the environment of our evolutionary ancestors, no sane parent–or grandparent, or uncle, or aunt, or other adult band member–would ever let a small child sleep alone. If a child were inadvertently left too far from an adult in the dark at night, the child’s cry would be immediately heeded. Today, without the realistic dangers, the child’s fear seems irrational, so people tend to assume that it is irrational and that the child must learn to overcome it. Or, if they read the “experts,” they learn that the child is just testing their will and acting “spoiled”. And so, people battle their child rather than listen to the child and to their own gut instincts that tell them that any crying baby needs to be picked up, held close, and cared for, not left alone to “get over it.”
What do we do about evolutionary mismatch? In this case, two alternatives appear. We can do what the “experts” advise and engage in a prolonged battle of wills, or we can do what our genes advise and figure out some not too inconvenient way to let our children sleep close to us. When my own son was small, long ago when I was a graduate student, the choice was easy. We lived in a one-room apartment, so there was no way to put him to bed separate from us. In some ways life is easier when you are poor than when you can afford an apartment or house with more than one room.
What do you do, or did you do, about your children’s bedtime? Was it a problem? How did you resolve it? I’m especially interested in the experiences of people who have made the choice–contrary to most pediatricians’ advice–to allow their children to sleep with them. How did you make that work?
 Watson, J. B. (1928). Psychological care of infant and child. New York: Norton. //  Barry, H., & Paxson, L. (1971). Infancy and earlychildhood: Cross-cultural codes, 2. Ethnology, 10, 466-508. // Morelli, G. A. et al. (1992), Cultural variation in infants’ sleeping arrangements. Questions of independence. Developmental Psychology, 28, 604-613. //  Konner (2002). The tangled wing: Biological constraints on the human spirit (2nd ed.). New York: Holt.
Dr. Gray, thank you for this article! It makes so much sense! I have two children, ages 1 and 4 years. Against the advice of almost everyone I know, my husband and I have always allowed them into our bed and have never let them “cry it out.” As infants they slept safely beside me. As older babies they fall asleep in my arms, are placed in a crib asleep, and as soon as they awake during the night are brought to bed with us for the rest of the night. They go to sleep when they are tired and fall asleep, not when a clock says it is time. My 4 year old goes to sleep in her bed and usually wakes up at some point, comes into our room and just climbs up into our bed, knowing she is always welcome there. Thank you for offering this fascinating evolutionary explanation!
Agreed – my 3 year old has slept beside me (first in my bed, now in her own bed next to mine) since birth (even in the hospital) and I have never had an issue with her going to sleep – and she sleeps for 12 hours without waking every night (unless she’s occasionally sick, but even then she is very calm as she knows i am right next to her, holding her hand). The thought of forcing her to sleep on her own and leave her to cry horrifies me, but I know lots of people who do that – but it seems that they are the people who have real sleep issues with their children, so why do they persist? A lot of them say its because they want their bedroom to themselves to get a better night sleep, but they seem to end up spending a lot of time sitting in the child’s bedroom trying to get them back to sleep in the middle of the night, and then getting up extremely early in the morning.
We do have a set bedtime, as if she was left to stay up until she chose to go to bed she would definitely get overtired and upset, but i’ve never found that set time to be a problem – generally as soon as i say its bedtime she will happily go to bed and lie down. She is not scared of the dark – she has no reason to be as she knows I am right there if she needs me.
What an interesting thought – that children are scared of the dark as a survival tactic. I’ve never thought of that before. Our house is spread out, with two small bedrooms close together upstairs, and the master bedroom downstairs and on the other side of the house. Sending my children to bed across the house on another floor is not something I would consider doing while they’re young. And they ARE really scared up there at night! They won’t even go in their rooms alone at night to get their pajamas or something they’ve left during the day such as a blanket or stuffed animal! We started “co-sleeping” before we ever heard the term out of natural parental instincts, not really as a conscious decision. We’ve just always done what came naturally. My husband is a night owl, so my children and I fit fine in our queen size bed together. When he gets in the bed between 4 -6 am, though it’s a tight squeeze, and he sometimes moves one LO down to a matress on the floor. It’s usually not long before said little one is back up in the big bed. I get out of the bed before long though and they’re comfy again. My children go to bed when I do, between 9 – 11pm. They sleep later than I do, which gives me some quiet time in the morning to prepare for the day and even spend some alone time with hubby if I get up early enough!! My husband works from home with a flexible schedule and we homeschool, so we aren’t held to anyone else’s schedule. My children are 3 & 5, so I feel a transition coming before too long. Not sending them to a different room, but maybe a futon in the same room? Our room’s not that big, so I’m not sure. Glad to hear a doctor having regard for parents’ and children’s natural instincts instead of trying to force them to ignore them in order to force children into our culture’s ridiculous mold of normality. Thank you.
It always seemed a bit strange to me that you would have a baby then seperate yourself from it at a time when everyone is at their most vunerable, and unaware.
When I had my baby daughter it wasn’t really a choice to have her sleeping with us it was just what felt right so that’s what we did.. as this was my first baby I had no other experience either way so I was just going along with what felt most natural and i just could not contemplate not having her with us. She was very little so we got one of the those snuggle beds which have soft but slightly ridget sides so that she wouldn’t roll under us and she slept on that between us until she got too big for it, then in a baby hammock above us or right next to me on a stand that allowed me to put my hand in and sway the hammock if she fussed. When she out grew out of her hammock we had a cott next to the bed until she turned 3. We never had any sleep issues at all and it was a lovely experience for all of us and something that I believe instilled a strong sense of safety and well being with my little one .
Things were getting a wee bit squishy as she got bigger so when she turned 3, her birthday present was her own newly decorated room and a beautiful antique oak double bed , we decided to made it a bit of a mile stone event so she was super excited about getting her big girl room, we also decided to get a big bed so that we could sleep with her if we needed to, particularly when she was sick. She always knew that she was welcome in our bed if she wanted to come in and would often jump in with us for a cuddle and story in the morning but only ever in the morning not through the night. I used a monitor for her room to begin with so that if she cried or woke up distressed I was there pretty promptly, so she knew early on that if she needed us, all she needed to do was shout, we had that for a couple of weeks then it was taken out as it wasn’t needed anymore.
I believe her being able to sleep with us for the time she did and having no real restrictions in regards to that, her being carried in a sling alot of her waking time when she was little and whenever she needed to when she was older, has helped shape this confident, secure almost 4 year old who kissed and waved goodbye to her mummy on her first day at kindy without a tear, dropped bottom lip or even a backward glance.
It is what feels right and the most natural , I think all parents would agree so why do people fight such a basic instinct.
I heard a few explanations, but this one is new for me. Makes sense.
I don’t have children yet, but I see the evidence of children wanting to feel someone as they fall asleep from my family.
With our first we read the books and toughed it out thinking we were doing the right thing. It tore us up listening to her cry herself to sleep. Still regret the decision to this day, but she has matured into a wonderful, happy adult with many friends and a wonderful personality. The worst thing about being a parent is you know you will make mistakes, sometimes totally unbeknownst to you, the good news is kids are pretty resilient and grow up to be wonderful in spite of that.
With my son we did reversed course and never had him cry it out. Sometimes I would lay with him in his bed, sometimes he would come join us and I would transfer him later. I would have really appreciated this article then, but we managed. He is still close and we hug a lot. There was a time during Middle school that my daughter refused hugs, my son never went thru that phase. Maybe no public hugs, but in private he never stopped. My daughter came back to hugs in high school happily.
when my now 2 year old was first born we co slept with her because i couldn’t imagine her in another room all by her self and we got a lot of negative comments from a ton of people but we stuck with it till she got to big for our double bed but we set up her crib in the same room it wasn’t till very recently that we put her in her own room but before we put her to be we always look under the be and in the closet because she was so scared and then i sit in her room until she is almost asleep but before i leave i always tell her that if she gets scared to come and get her mommy or daddy and we come in and start the process again when she first started sleeping in her own room it was 6 or 7 times a night that we were in there helping her get to sleep but now its usually just the first time and then she sleeps 10-12 hours
My kids both co-slept with us in our bed until they were 2, then they shared a bed in our room for a year or so. They now have their own rooms (they are 3 and 5) and I adjusted them via a gradual gentle process of parenting them to sleep by sitting within sight between their rooms each night. For the first few months they’d both come in to our bed in the middle of the night and were welcomed without hesitation. That period was tiring but didn’t last long and now they ask for bed when they’re tired (usually before ‘bed time’) and after goodnight kisses they both happily fall off to sleep alone, then sleep all night. We’ve never had a fight over bed time and I believe both children now have the strong, positive sleep associations of love and security. It’s interesting to me that the parents who were negative about our ‘cotton wool’ approach all have kids who still fight and cry at bedtime…. It’s through articles like yours that we found the information and support we needed to stick to our instincts as parents and tune out advise to the contrary – so thank you!
You could check out monster-defense.com. We have a wonderful-smelling spray available now & a fun, illustrated children’s story coming out in Dec 2013 that tells the story of a little boy with a monster in his room, and how he overcame his fear of monsters. In researching online prior to writing the book, we read many articles from child & adolescent psychologists and parents about recommended methods for dealing with fear of monsters, and interpreted this into a fun, rhyming story which gives parents direction on how to help & gives kids the tools necessary to overcome their fear.
We are not prisoners of our instincts; we can make choices to manage old instincts that no longer apply to human life much of the time. While those instincts are not entirely obsolete, they are mostly no longer useful to us. For example, in the developed world we no longer fight others for food, fight off animals, or “spread the seed” far and wide to ensure continuation of your genetic line (for males). So why must we continue the instinctual need to sleep in large groups for safety from animals or weather? To each his own, but I disagree with your particular reasoning. I did not have my child until I was late 30’s, 5 years after graduate school, so I feel my thoughts and opinions on this are based on my own life experience and education prior to having children, as well as a few years afterward. My child is nearly 4 now.
Thank you, excellent article. I think you are spot on about fear of the dark and monsters under the bed. It is universal, I have studied it.
I am Terry Sachetti, the inventor of the Force Field Cloak, and I like to explain it like this. “Remember when we were kids and afraid of the dark unable to fall asleep for fear of monsters under the bed or in the closet? We would hide under our blankets because we believed they had the power to protect us, right? Millions of children, every night, experience fear of the dark, and parents, like me, struggled to find a solution. The Force Field™ Cloak visually reinforces that protective power children believe in already, and they know what a Force Field is. Now they can have their very own personal Force Field to protect them from whatever they may be afraid of.” If they are or are not afraid of the dark, it is just a ton of fun to play with. Making Nighttime Fun Time.
I am not encouraging kids to believe in Monsters or whatever fears they may have. However, with all that is going on in the world today, what kids are seeing and hearing, it does cause anxiety in many forms. This is just something to help them through some tough times. Most kids go through this period and some never grow out of it. Over 24% of adults are still afraid of the dark. I bet you know one. At the very least, this is just a ton for fun to play with. You can see it for yourself by going to our site ForceFieldFun.com I have written a book with characters that represent children’s most common fears, so they can better deal with them. It is a lot easier to deal with a fear if we can put a face on it.