By Kim West, LCSW-C, The Sleep Lady®
We’ve talked a lot about co-sleeping, and there are many benefits to safely co-sleeping with your children. But what if you’re ready to make a change and end your co-sleeping relationship? Maybe no one is sleeping (remember, families that contact me who are co-sleeping want to change it, because what they’re doing isn’t working), or your baby is waking frequently at night, or you’re ready for your preschooler to be in her own room, or perhaps you’re just ready for a change. Whatever your reason, hopefully these six tips help you to make this big step into a gentle sleep transition.
Families who decide to co-sleep or choose a family bed will at some point need to help their children transition into a separate bed, or even a separate room. But when is the right time? According to Dr. Brazelton, author of Touchpoints, most kids stop co-sleeping on their own by thirteen years of age. But what if you’d like to end the co-sleeping relationship sooner? How can you gently help your baby make this big transition?
Talk About It
Begin with a conversation (if your child is old enough) about how bedtime will be changing soon, and remind your child often. The more you mention the change, the more your child will have time to process, think, and become aware that bedtime is going to change soon.
Consider starting these conversations and reminders at least three to five days before you plan to begin the transition.
Introduce a Transitional Object
Once you’ve made the decision to transition from a family bed into separate bed(room)s, you may want to introduce a lovey if you haven’t already: a blanket, or stuffed animal (be sure that there are no choking hazards like loose parts or button eyes) that can be introduced into the bedtime routine. Be sure that you make the lovey part of your day and give it some personality. The goal of a lovey (or transitional object) is to help soothe your baby and give him security when you aren’t there.
It may also be helpful to ‘wear’ the lovey so that it has your smell, which is calming for your baby. This will allow your baby to have a part of ‘you’ without you actually being there.
Choose An Appropriate Bed
There really is not right or wrong way to transition your child from your family bed, and into his own bed, although most families do find that starting small helps. To help ease your baby into their new sleeping accommodations, let your child pick out special sheets, and/or a blanket. Decide if you want to start with a twin mattress on the floor, or a crib if your child is under three years (the minimum age I recommend that you put a child into a ‘big’ bed is 2.5 years old but, three years old is ideal), and allow them to help you make their new ‘big kid’ bed.
When it comes time to put them into his bed for the first time, go through your normal bedtime routine, with the exception of the family bed. Put him in their ‘big bed’. It usually helps to cosleep in their room with your baby for a few days before putting him into his new bed. Remember that this co-sleeping phase is temporary (no more than three days), and that you are going to be utilizing The Shuffle with your chair soon.
Utilize The Shuffle
It’s completely understandable that the new sleeping arrangements may be a little unnerving for your child, so be prepared to help resettle her as needed for the first few nights. Be sure to move your chair position every three days to help her adjust as gently as possible.
I would urge you to resist lying down with her (once you’ve stopped co-sleeping in her room), as that may end up creating a sleep crutch that you’ll just have to modify later. Remember that the whole point of the transition is to help your baby settle into the new routine without creating any additional sleep crutches that will have to be dealt with later.
Consider Night Weaning
Speaking of sleep crutches….
Now is a good time to start night weaning if you haven’t already. I would urge you to please check with your doctor that your baby no longer needs nighttime feedings before you pursue night weaning. It may make the transition easier for everyone if your baby has night weaned If you choose to go this route, I would encourage you to night wean before you transition your child into their own bed.
Making this change first will help to keep your baby from expecting to eat during the night, and may help him be more receptive to dad or mom coming in to gently resettle and soothe her without food.
A Note from The Sleep Lady: If it’s possible to night wean before you transition your child into their own bed, then do that. But, if it’s not possible to co-sleep AND night wean (which I’ll admit is not an easy feat), then you may have to address both issues at the same time. You can find more information about both gentle night weaning and co-sleeping in my book, Good Night, Sleep Tight.
Remember that children are adaptable
This process will be harder for some babies than others. Regardless of your reasons to end co-sleeping, remember that your baby may not completely understand why she doesn’t have mom or dad right there when she wakes.
Trust me when I say that your baby is smarter and more adaptable than you think, and she’ll adjust to the new routine out soon. In the meantime, use The Shuffle, and know that it’s okay if you have to take some time to make this transition. It’s a big step for all of you! Remember, a week or two really is fleeting, and it will help your whole family adjust to the new sleeping arrangements for the long term.
For more on this topic, please review Chapter 12 in my book, Good Night Sleep Tight, which is entirely devoted to gently ending the co-sleeping relationship.