By Kim West, LCSW-C, The Sleep Lady®
At some point, everyone needs to learn to put themselves to sleep, and that includes your co-sleeping toddler. The point of co-sleeping is to allow everyone in the family to sleep well, which also means that you do not have to continue to go to bed at 7 p.m. You also do not have to keep your overtired toddler up until your bedtime or lie down with them when it’s time for them to take a nap. It’s about finding a middle ground that works.
Your family bed is where both you and your toddler sleep, and unless your toddler is a night owl, you are probably tired of having to adjust your bedtime to match theirs. Or maybe you’re tired of keeping him up until it’s your bedtime, since you end up with a cranky, overtired, or possibly wired toddler and no quiet time for you. This is why it is so important that parents teach their baby to fall asleep independently. Not only is it an important life skill, but when your toddler can put himself to sleep at night, you suddenly have time to empty the dishwasher, answer a few emails, or spend some time connecting with your spouse or partner. So, how can you accomplish this?
Start with your soothing bedtime routine
Hopefully, you’ve already created a soothing bedtime routine that works for both you and your toddler. If you haven’t, now is a great time to find one that works! A soothing bath, story, snuggle time, lullaby…one or a few of these will begin to signal to your little one that it’s time to settle down for sleep.
Once you have your routine, you can start to focus on encouraging your toddler to fall to sleep on his own. It really is possible, and for an independent toddler, this is a huge coup! Your little one will be so impressed with himself! ‘Mommy is letting me go to sleep by myself.’ Okay, maybe they won’t actually think that, but your toddler will get satisfaction from knowing that they are able to fall asleep independently. For a little one who wants to be a big kid, this is right up there with toilet training and learning to use a fork.
Use the Sleep Lady Shuffle in your family bed
Start sitting in a chair next to your family bed, and explain to your toddler that you’re going to let them fall asleep on her own, because she is such a big kid, and you will stay with her until she is asleep. Remind her that you will be back when it’s time for Mommy or Daddy to go to sleep. Focus on giving her the power here. It’s up to her to fall asleep. WOW, are you proud of her!
You may need to start by sitting up in the bed and offering a pat, gentle rubs or shushing to help him sleep, and then you can move to the chair. If your child is using a sleep crutch, such as nursing or rocking to sleep, now is the time to gently wean him.
Try to stay in your chair as much as possible and offer soothing sounds if needed. During these first few nights it’s perfectly okay to touch your baby, as she will likely come over to you and lay near your chair. If you can, try to do this intermittently, which will allow you to control the touch. For example, don’t hold her hand to sleep since that will be quite difficult in a couple of nights when you are sitting across the room. Staying in the chair will be more important when you move the chair to the doorway, further into your gentle sleep coaching.
Only pick him up if they are truly upset. Even then, resist the urge to snuggle into bed with him (you get to do that in a few hours anyway!), and put him back in bed once he has calmed down. For specific instructions on the Sleep Lady Shuffle, go here.
Once you’ve mastered the Shuffle at bedtime, your toddler will be putting herself to sleep at night! Congratulations! Now that you’ve reached that goal, it’s time to figure out how to climb into bed without waking that sleeping baby…I mean, toddler.
How to enter the family bed without waking your sleeping toddler
The easiest way to enter your bed, is to simply climb in. If you happen to wake your baby, you can snuggle with him and help them back to sleep. However, if Mom is currently working to wean nighttime breastfeeding, she may want to wear extra layers, or a snug fitting bra and spoon snuggle. Another option would be for Dad to go ahead and snuggle baby to sleep to help with the nursing sleep association.
Now, what if she won’t fall asleep…or she does, and then she starts crawling all over you at 3am (yes, it’s happened)…or she decides to practice her admirable acrobatics as soon as you fall asleep, using your mattress as their trampoline…or the other parent is sleeping in another room and has been for months or even years (yes, I’ve talked to families in this situation) and it is no longer a ‘family’ bed…it may be time to consider other options. I’m not saying you shouldn’t co-sleep, but if your family is in one of the aforementioned situations, then you really aren’t sleeping. And maybe, it’s time to consider some alternatives.
If your toddler is extremely active
Before you try anything else, try rolling over and ignoring your toddler. If that doesn’t work, go back to a modified version of the Shuffle. Explain that now (a.k.a. 4:00 in the morning) is not the time to exercise, now is the time to sleep. Encourage him to lie down so that you can snuggle and spoon with him. Some parents decide that the best option is to get back in the chair, but it’s not always necessary. You can also turn your back to them and pretend to go back to sleep. Sometimes all our toddlers want is an audience, and if you don’t give him one, he may get bored and go back to sleep on his own.
Their own bed
A Note From The Sleep Lady: I should warn you, this solution is not ideal if your goal is a true family bed, but I am a firm believer that the time you spend co-sleeping should be spent sleeping. It’s not fun for everyone in the family to be sleep deprived and tired. Co-sleeping should leave everyone involved rested and happy.
Another alternative may be adding an additional mattress for your big kid in the bedroom. Maybe it’s a crib mattress, maybe a twin, but the important thing is that it’s separate. It’s still in your family bedroom, but she gets her very own special bed. This will make the Shuffle easier and allow everyone to get more restful sleep.
Eventually, your toddler is going to see what happens when she gets back into your bed. You can easily adapt the steps above to fit this situation. Perhaps you start by gently helping her back to her own bed, encouraging her to lay down and go to sleep, and sitting by quietly while she falls asleep. If your toddler continues to climb into your bed, you may want to determine when you will allow her to bedshare with you. Is it after a certain number of awakenings? Or maybe a certain time of night? Or perhaps you would rather repeat the Shuffle to help her with the transition. However you decide to handle night wakings, it is important to always be consistent.
If you have made the decision that you want to gently end the co-sleeping relationship with your toddler because it’s not working for your family, I have outlined the steps to help your toddler make the transition in my book, Good Night Sleep Tight.
Whatever you choose, remember that sleep is important, and should not be sacrificed. Children grow and develop at different rates, and as parents, we need to watch their cues, and be prepared to nurture their independent ability to sleep.