Sharing your bed with your child can be wonderful … when they’re not kicking, tossing, turning, talking, flopping or otherwise disturbing your much-needed rest. And it can be hard to keep your bed to yourself as a parent. Whether your little one finds their way into your room in the middle of the night or starts out there, you can reclaim your sleep space—and help the whole family wake up more refreshed.
When should my child sleep in his or her own bed?
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that it’s not safe to bed share with an infant. Room sharing, however, is recommended for the first six months or, ideally, for the first year, according to Dr. Mansi Lalwani, pediatrician at Baylor Scott & White Family Health Center – Mesquite. That will reduce the chances of SIDS.
But don’t be tempted to lay the baby down next to you. The possibility of SIDS requires parents to keep kids out of their beds until 12 months of age, when the risk decreases.
When it is safe to bed share, many families end up doing so, whether they set out to or not.
Parents are tired at the end of the day, and sometimes it’s easier to just let your kid snuggle up next to you and pass out. But Lalwani cautions that while there’s not a specific age that children should be in their own beds, “once kids learn to sleep in the same bed as you, you’ll have a hard time transitioning them to their own bed and own room later on.”
The ideal situation, says Lalwani, is that babies sleep in a bassinet or crib in their parents’ room, then move to their own room, still in their cribs, at a year. They then typically have an easier time moving to a toddler bed in their room. A few signs that they’re ready to move to a bed include consistently climbing out of the crib, asking to sleep in a “big girl” or “big boy” bed, being 35 inches tall or when the crib rail is at or below chest level. Lalwani says for most families, this is achieved by 2½–3 years of age.
But those transitions don’t always happen smoothly.
Sleep consultant Mary Cantwell of Rest To Your Nest helps families all over Dallas-Fort Worth with this issue. When it comes to getting kids to move from the crib or the parents’ bed to their own bed, the parents who seek her assistance have kiddos ranging from 2–7 years old. The average age is about 3 ½. But she’s quick to note that what’s best for a family is very individualized.
“I believe that bedsharing is a family sleep decision,” Cantwell explains. “If your child is old enough that it’s safe, and bedsharing fits your family’s needs, then go ahead and do that. If that’s not working for your family and you want your child to sleep in their room, then you would want to look at independent sleep.”
What should I do to get my kid to sleep alone?
No matter what you do, expect it to take a while for kids to get the hang of sleeping in their own bed. “They’ll keep resisting initially. If you’re firm and consistent, it should take around 2–3 weeks,” says Lalwani.
Cantwell recommends staying consistent for at least a month so children have time to understand how to sleep in their rooms.
The key to success is taking it step by step. “As in every transition we guide our children through, there is typically a period of adjustment,” notes Cantwell.
If your child is accustomed to sleeping next to you, they need to take a small step toward independence at the beginning. “If you room share, then you can start the transition with a small mattress on the floor in the parents’ room,” suggests Lalwani. “Allow them to fall asleep without touching you but still able to see you and be close.”
When your child masters sleeping on a mattress in your room, you can begin the process of moving them to their own space. Lalwani does not recommend lying down in your child’s bed until he or she falls asleep.
Cantwell suggests having an age-appropriate family meeting where you cover the basics of good sleep and how lack of sleep makes everyone feel. You can introduce a “sleep rules chart” that has simple steps on how sleep works and incorporate the chart into nap and bedtime routines, reviewing the rules before lights out and then again in the morning.
The chart could include tasks such as brush teeth; read two books and close our eyes for sleep; if we wake at night, we stay in bed quietly; and get up when the OK to Wake clock turns green.
“Praise your child on the steps they completed well, and then go over the steps they need to work on,” advises Cantwell. “Say something like, ‘You did such a great job on #1 and #2, and now we need to work on #3. I know you can do it tonight!’” The goal is to build confidence in your child so they feel empowered in their sleep process—and motivate them to keep it up.
Kids will have an easier time mastering their new sleep rules if they have something to comfort them besides Mom’s arms. “Give them a transitional object,” advises Lalwani. “A blanket, a soft toy—anything the child really loves and is safe for them to have when they’re alone.” You should also tell your child you will check on them during the night.
Parents can also practice separation from their kiddos during the daytime. “Keep the bar low,” Lalwani says. “Leave the room for just a few minutes and say, ‘See, Mama always comes back.’”
Just know that there will be growing pains for kids used to sharing a bed with Mom and Dad. “But you want to teach your child to confront, cope and master their own anxiety,” shares Lalwani. “You want to build self-esteem and confidence. It’s not just about night; these behaviors translate to daytime. If your child constantly needs to be reassured and attached to you, you’re not fostering an independent child.”
What if my kid keeps getting up out of bed?
Three words: Keep. It. Boring. “You want to make these interactions as mundane as possible, so that it is not engaging for them,” says Cantwell. “If it is middle-of-the-night waking and they come to your room, silently return them back to their room, with minimal or no interaction, and have them get back in bed.” You may have to do this multiple times, but they’ll eventually get up less often.
But what about those nights when you’re so tired? Does it hurt to let them crawl in bed with you “just this one time”? “I’ve been there personally,” says Lalwani. “It’s easier to let them go ahead and sleep with you, but you have to tell yourself, I’m going to be consistent. I’ll be waking up several times at night for a few weeks, or it’s going to be a lifelong thing.”
Cantwell concurs. “It takes time and consistency to make a new routine.”
How can I help my child not be scared?
Once you get your kiddo in their own room, they might be scared if they’re used to nighttime companionship. “There will be nights when your child will be startled awake by a loud thunderstorm or a bad dream,” affirms Cantwell. “You will want to validate how your child is feeling and let them know they are with Mom and Dad and that they are safe. After you feel they are calm, let them know before you leave their room, ‘It’s night-night time. Mom and Dad are close by, and we love you and will be back to check on you.’”
Lalwani says a security object (special blanket or stuffed animal, for example) can help kids feel more relaxed at bedtime. A nightlight may provide a feeling of security, even if your child is not afraid of the dark itself. Other tips include letting them sleep with a pet and not allowing exposure to scary programs or books.
You can provide reassurance if they call for you after being tucked in, says Lalwani. “The parent can say ‘You are OK. We are here to make sure you are safe.’ But do not spend too much time during this period of reassurance and don’t go into the room too often. Otherwise, your child will become dependent on your presence.” She adds that if the child is very frightened and really cannot be in the room alone, you may want to stay by their bed until they fall asleep.
“If the child can talk, give them a chance to tell you what scares them at bedtime but don’t force them,” she advises. “Do not dismiss their fears or make fun of them.”
What if my little one isn’t so little?
Sometimes parents let bedsharing go on a lot longer than intended. So maybe you have an older child accustomed to sleeping with you.
Lalwani says your nighttime process is the same, but you should do a lot more talking and preparation during the daylight hours. “Younger ones are not necessarily processing words, they’re processing actions,” she notes. “Older ones can process words. Give them more positive reinforcement, and have them consider what their friends do. They’ve very influenced by peers at that time. You can say, ‘If you want to go to a sleepover or camps, this is one of the first steps you need to take. Mom isn’t trying to get rid of you, but you’re strong and I know you can do it.’”
Cantwell approaches older, school-age kids on a case-by-case basis. But regardless of age, if you have a child who has always slept with you, remember that they’ve never known anything different.
“For those children, an even more gradual approach will fit their needs best,” says Cantwell. “That may range from staying in the room, close to their bed and gradually moving further away to checking on them periodically while they’re falling asleep.”
Need some more motivation?
Kids who regularly occupy their parents’ bed may end up with less sleep than recommended, as they often go to bed at later hours.
Lalwani says there is research indicating that if a family is bedsharing, a toddler won’t get the most restful sleep. And we all know the perils of an unrested toddler: difficulty performing tasks, temper tantrums, trouble with self-regulating behavior and so on. She adds that kids who don’t sleep well at night may also be more likely to experience obesity later on.
And don’t forget about taking care of yourself. Mom needs a good night’s snooze too, obviously.
Can a sleep consultant assist in this process?
Don’t be afraid to call in back up—whether it’s talking to your pediatrician or getting a sleep consultant on board. “My goal as a sleep consultant is to empower the family on their sleep journey and bring confidence and clarity to the process,” says Cantwell. “There are many books on sleep, but they don’t fit every circumstance and child. This is where the art of sleep consulting comes into play and how to work through the nuances of sleep, so that the family can be well rested.”
A final word of advice
When we’re tired, we can say or do things we regret. Building an independent sleeper isn’t always easy and often involves nighttime wake-ups, but “be kind to your kids,” says Lalwani. “Don’t let your frustrations get the better of you. They expect love and patience. Most things are achievable with love, patience and kindness. Of course, things happen, but I try to remind myself that my overarching parenting theme is kindness and consistency.”
Image courtesy of iStock.