Crawling into bed with your child after a long day can be comforting. But this habit might interfere with her ability to sleep alone. Learn how to transition a child out of your bed and stop co-sleeping for good, even if your child has always slept with you.
In an earlier post, I reviewed reasons why you might want to avoid co-sleeping, because of SIDS risk in infancy, and the fact that it can be associated with poor sleep as children get older.
What is Co-sleeping?
Co-sleeping is simply sharing a bed with your child. Some would argue that it is imprecise, and that “bedsharing” (as opposed to “roomsharing”) would be more precise.
Why do some families co-sleep?
In many parts of the world, cosleeping is the norm, either for cultural reasons or space reasons– some families sleep in a one bedroom home. Other families due it for closeness. Many parents who are interesting in attachment parenting cosleep.
I was just interviewed by Good Morning America about the actress Alicia Silverstone, who still cosleeps with her 11 year old son. (The full interview is here).
When is co-sleeping OK?
Co-sleeping never worked with our kids as they never slept well in our bed. People I know and respect have chosen to co-sleep with their children and have been happy to do so. One great example is Dr. Claire McCarthy, who wrote about co-sleeping with her children on the Huffington Post.
This made me reflect on what would make me OK with ongoing co-sleeping if a family asked my opinion. My goal for families is good enough sleep, which in this case means:
- Your child is older than a year and thus the risk of SIDS is minimal.
- Everyone is sleeping well
- There is enough space in the family bed for everyone to be comfortable
- Parents are not being disturbed during the night.
- Parents and children feel well rested in the morning and are not sleepy during the day.
- Your child CAN separate sleep elsewhere without tears or anxiety– say at Grandma’s house or on a sleepover.
If all of these circumstances are not met, then I think you should stop cosleeping. (In the case of the last criteria, a child that cannot separate may struggle from separation anxiety. Cosleeping doesn’t cause separation anxiety, but if your child cannot be without you at night without having a breakdown, I think you should work towards some independence at bedtime).
When to stop co-sleeping?
If your child is less than a year of age, I would recommend immediately transitioning your child to a crib or bassinet (if your child is less than a year, preferably in your room.)
For older children (think toddlers and up), you may want to plan a bit for when and how to make the change. Read on for more and how to do this.
How to stop co-sleeping with a baby
For very young infants (less than three months) you can simply soothe your child to sleep and put her down in the crib. At four months of age, I would recommend putting her down drowsy but awake. If this is a struggle, you may want to consider sleep training your child.
For more on this see “Sleep training in infancy: Flipping the switch“
What if my child co-sleeps and nurses all night long?
Generally, I recommend addressing the co-sleeping first. This will stop your child from grazing all night long. Once you establish your child sleeping independently, you can work on weaning night feeds. For more on this, here’s how to stop feeding your child at night so you can sleep better.
How to stop co-sleeping with a toddler or older child
There is no magic bullet for fixing sleep problems. How you address this issue depends on how and why you are cosleeping with your child. But no matter your circumstance, there are some important elements to a successful transition. For more on why people fail to fix sleep issues, please read my post on Sleep Training Mistakes and Pitfalls.
- Be consistent: The number one reason I see families fail at extricating their child from their bed is that they are inconsistent. Either your child is sleeping in your bed or he or she is not. If you relent even once in a while during the process of establishing a new sleeping pattern, you will reinforce the behavior you are trying to extinguish. Remember that intermittent reinforcement is a powerful mechanism for encouraging undesirable behavior. (Again— if your kid comes into your bed once a while, and you do not regard this as a problem, you don’t need to proceed with any of this).
- Have a plan: To be consistent, you have to know exactly what you are going to do. It is hard to come up with good plans on the fly in the middle of the night. Make sure that all caregivers are on board with the plan.
- Have a “quit date”: I highly recommend that you mindfully chose a time for a change and do not, say, start a change the day before a vacation, or before your mother in law comes to visit
- Make your child’s room special: Some children may be apprehensive about spending time alone in their room. Spending fun and special one on one time. Take him to pick out some new pajamas and sheets. Pick out a new stuffed animal to use as a transitional object.
If your child falls asleep in your bed every night
If child sleeps in your bed every night for the whole night, and this is a long-standing pattern. In this scenario, many families want to stop once they are expecting another child, or their child hits a milestone such as kindergarten. In this scenario, you need to go gradually. Why is this different? Often your child does not know another way to sleep.
- Discuss with your child at an age appropriate level. Often this transition may happen at an older age. Be honest. Tell her that she is a big girl now and is almost ready to spend the night in her own bed. Tell her that Mommy and Daddy (or Mommy, or Daddy, or Daddy and Daddy, or Mommy and Mommy) need some time by themselves.
- Start moving bedtime into your child’s room: If your child spends the whole night in your room, start doing all of bedtime in his room and then moving him into your bed for a few days, as a dress rehearsal for spending the night in his own bed.
- Napping in her bed first:If your child is still napping, this may be a good time for your child to practice sleeping on her own.
- Bedtime fading (moving bedtime later) can be a big help with this transition.
- Consider camping out If (you or) your child is very apprehensive about this, consider a “camping out” approach where you temporarily move to an air mattress on the floor of your child’s room. I would recommend NOT bed-sharing at this point to smooth the transition.
- For more on sleep training, here’s a guide to all of the different sleep training techniques.
Separation anxiety and co-sleeping
Separation anxiety is the most common type of anxiety in children. If your child is afraid of sleeping without you, he may be suffering from separation anxiety. Commonly children with separation anxiety insist that they sleep with a parent, or that a parent sleep near them. Often, they may be afraid of being awake when their parents are asleep, and may demand that parents stay awake until they are asleep.
Other signs of separation anxiety include dreams or nightmares about separation, and difficulty with separation in other contexts, like school drop offs.
If your child is suffering from separation anxiety, I highly recommend you discuss it with your pediatrician. I also highly recommend the book, Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD by Eli Lebowitz (affiliate link), a colleague here at Yale.
Dr. Lebowitz also has a terrific plan for parents of anxious kids who want to break the cosleeping habit:
The Yale Plan for Getting Your Kid To Sleep In His Own Bed
This involves playing a game with your kids around spending time in the bed where they pretend to fall asleep in their own bed. They should play to an imaginary audience. This should be performed at your child’s usual bedtime. Here are the steps:
- Make sure the child actually has a bed and a place to go to sleep. For children with longstanding cosleeping, their bed may have been put away or repurposed. Set up the bed where you want your child to sleep with pillows and blankets.
- Have your child prepare for bed as if he is actually going to bed. Brush teeth, put on pajamas, read a story– whatever your bedtime routine consists of.
- Your child will then get into bed and pretend to fall asleep for a set period of time– usually a minute or less. They should be able to stay calm during this period. If they cannot, you have selected too long a period of time. For older children, let them decide how long this time can be.
- After the set period of time, come back in, congratulate your child, and allow them into your own bed. Don’t encourage them to stay longer even if it has gone well— don’t suggest that they “just stay there”, although they are welcome to stay longer if they like. Praise your child and invite them back into your own room.
- After two to three nights, increase the time duration by a few minutes every two to three nights
- Often, once the duration gets to 15 minutes, children are falling asleep independently. If they do fall asleep, leave them in their own bed and celebrate their success in the morning.
- If they wake up at night it’s ok to welcome them into your own room,
- Continue the plan (with increasing intervals at bedtime) until independent sleep in their room is a regular occurrence. I would continue for at least a week or two.
As per the authors:
The secret lies in the fact that by predefining the amount of time a child will lay in bed, a situation is created in which the child is in bed but is not anxious. This is because they know it is only for a limited amount of time. The natural consequence of lying in bed when not particularly anxious is falling asleep. Children could lie awake for much more than 15 minutes if they think they need to be in bed alone all night and could even keep themselves (and their parents) up by calling to the parents or crying. But by assuring the child that this is only a “game” for a set and brief amount of time, the anxiety is eliminated and the child forms a new association between being in bed and feelings of calm and relaxation.Lebowitz, Eli R.; Omer, Haim. Treating Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety (pp. 96-97). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
If your child has trouble with going to sleep and waking up at night. Once children are successfully falling asleep in their own bed, you can then try having them stay in bed for set lengths of time with night wakings as well.
If your child comes into your room every night and falls asleep
If your child only cosleeps in the middle of the night, or has transitioned to falling asleep in her own bed but is still coming into your room at night, you can try the following interventions.
- For anxious children, I would follow the protocol above, but start with expecting your child to spend short periods of time in bed and gradually increasing over time.
- Addressing sleep onset associations:: This is the most important thing to do: How your child falls asleep is the key to successful sleep. Sleep onset association are when your child falls asleep under circumstances absent during the night: usually this involves you being present when he falls asleep. These sleep onset associations may be subtle. Do you turn out the lights and then have to go back in to settle your child? Does he come out of the room multiple times at bedtime until you lay down with him.
- One of the most challenging forms of reactive co-sleeping is due to early morning awakenings. Although it is really tempting to just relent at 4 or 5 in the AM, if you want your child to stop this behavior, they will not do it on their own. In this scenario, I recommend the OK to wake clock. The correct way to use this is to set the “OK to wake” alarm to 10 minutes after their usual wake time, and then move it 10 minutes later a day.
- Sleeping bag on floor: For children who come into your bedroom on his or her own, I highly recommend that you provide them an option for sleeping in your room without disturbing you. A sleeping bag and pillow on the floor is a great solution for a transition. Many children will stop using this of her own accord with time, especially once they realize that it is not as comfortable as her own bed.
- Bringing you child back to her room every time: If your child does not want to sleep on your floor and insists on disturbing you every night, you need to walk him back to their own room. Every time. Most kids will not pitch a huge fit in the middle of the night. If they do, you can employ the door closing strategy. This means bringing your child back to bed with the expectation that he will stay in bed. If he gets up and leaves the bed you close the door for one minute and hold it shut. If you open the door and he is not in bed you close it for two minutes, and increase as needed. This is a nuclear option, but sometimes it needs to be employed.
Other questions that may come up:
- How long will this take? It is somewhat hard to predict. It may go really smoothly if your child is ready for this change and take a day or two. In other children, who may be more reluctant, you may need to go more slowly. I would expect this to take no more than two weeks. If you try to stop cosleeping and it is a disaster, I recommend discussing it with your pediatrician or a sleep specialist. However, remember the extinction burst: your child’s sleep will typically worsen before it improves, and such difficulties may occur 2–3 days in.
- What if my child gets sick/has a nightmare, etc?I would encourage you to try to follow your plan as strictly as you are comfortable. A quick cuddle in the middle of the night in their room is OK; bringing him into your bed for the rest of the night may undo weeks of hard work. I would say that if you are not ready to be firm on this topic for a month, I would hold off for a bit. After your child is successfully sleeping in his bed for a month or so, I think that it may be OK to bring them into your bed if you really have to (e.g. if he is running a high fever) with the understanding that you may need to be a bit firm afterwards.
- What if I’m not sure if I am doing the right thing? If you are ambivalent and telegraph that to your child, you are setting you both up for failure. Perhaps you should wait for a bit. However, if you have come up with a plan and started executing, I encourage you to follow through in spite of middle of the night misgivings. Give it a week. If you stop too soon, you and your child have suffered for nothing, and possibly made it more difficult for yourselves in the future. I think you can do it.
So this has turned into an epic post. Let me know if you have other thoughts on this topic, or questions I have not answered. Also, if you have successfully navigated this transition, please let me know what worked for you.