It's three in the morning and my husband and I are under attack - in our own bed. While we've been asleep, three child-shaped lumps have worked themselves under the duvet with all the cunning of the SAS on a night-time manoeuvre. Now they are comfortably ensconced, spread-eagled and snoring gently, forcing us to the far edges of the bed where we can either cling, praying for sleep, or opt for a small-hours game of pass the parcel as we post them back into their own beds.
For years, bedtime has become a battleground as we counter the territorial aspirations of our offspring, now aged 7, 11 and 13, horribly aware that, unlike dust mites, we can't subdue them with a quick blast in the freezer. And, naturally, it's all my fault. Like so many working mothers battling fatigue, I succumbed to the temptation to bring my first, wakeful baby into the bed, alert to the perils of suffocation, and unaware that, a decade later, I would have a bigger struggle as I tried to winkle her out again.
Talking to other parents hasn't helped. Believe what they say and you'd assume that in their well-regulated homes, newborn babies are routinely frogmarched straight from the maternity ward to their own room, equipped with a giant teddy, a map of the house and a set of instructions for the microwave steriliser and left to get on with it until they've reached 18 and moved out again. Ply the parents with alcohol, though, and a different picture emerges. One family I know has bought a bed so big that it could qualify for its own council tax band, on the basis that when the children appear the parents can pretend not to see them.
Few areas of parenting arouse such strong feelings as sleeping arrangements - though breast-feeding past the age of 1 runs a close second, allowing mothers such as me who did both, often simultaneously, to experience the heady sensation of breaking two taboos at once.
Mixed messages for parents
Let your children sleep in your bed, thunder some experts, and you send the message that they can't cope on their own. On the contrary, insist others: forcing children into a separate room makes them feel pushed out and insecure. Many cultures skip the soul-searching altogether and carry on child-rearing the way they always have. Saranjit Srisarkun, who works for the Thai Embassy, says: “It's not common for us to leave the baby in a room by itself. Traditionally, children sleep in the same room as the parents, either on a mattress on the floor, or in a crib until they are 2 or 3 and old enough to be by themselves.”
Given such a laid-back approach, should I really be that worried? In a word, yes. For a start, it's unlikely to be doing our marriage any favours. “Having children in the bed can create a distance between the parents,” says Denise Knowles from Relate. “Being in bed together is a chance for the adults to unpack their day. If you lose that private time, it's easy to grow apart.” And as anyone rolling over to stroke a partner's back as the prelude to lovemaking only to encounter a snoring toddler can confirm, your offspring can, literally, come between you. Not only can this ruin your sex life but it also has the potential to cause a schism in your relationship.
The problems don't stop there. “To be able to go to bed in the sure knowledge that you're going to wake refreshed in the morning is a nice gift to be able to pass on,” says Dr Trevor Stevens, a behavioural psychologist, whose CD And So to Sleep (www.fishymusic.co.uk) is designed to help children settle at bedtime.
By the age of 4, children will wake briefly several times a night. If they can get back to sleep only by moving into their parents' bed, their poor sleeping habits could build into long-term problems in adulthood. If my husband and I want to change our children's behaviour, says Stevens, we'll have to change ours, waking up long enough to put migrating children back into their own beds and, if necessary, staying with them until they fall asleep.
It's also vital, advises the psychologist and writer Dr Dorothy Rowe, to ask the children why being in bed with us is so important. In our case, I have a sneaking suspicion that my children have an advanced case of bed envy. And it's hard to blame them for preferring our clean sheets and kingsize comfort to the chocolate-smeared pillowcases and undelicious smell of eau de Cairn terrier of their own beds.
Sometimes, however, children's worries can make uncomfortable listening. “It can be that they are frightened that one or both of the parents is going to die, or that the parents are fighting and not talking to the child about what's going on,” says Dr Rowe.
“Why are you here?” I ask the youngest, when she materialises the next night, just beating the dawn chorus to it and clutching several books, her favourite dressing-up shoes and the cat. “Because you are,” she says. And that, say the experts, can be the nub of the problem. So many parents are constantly busy that the car and the bed are often the only places where a parent's physical presence can be guaranteed.
I can't say I enjoy it, but after several weeks of ironing out any hidden night-time worries including motion sickness caused by wobbly bunk beds, I start to feel more confident about bedtime than I have for years. It's also essential, says Knowles, to teach them that from now on they must never come into our bedroom without knocking first. Her tip to get the message home? “Vaseline on the door handle,” she says, succinctly.