Co-sleeping: tips for transitioning to independent sleep

Family-feetCo-sleeping is a funny topic.  In some settings it openly is disparaged, in some places it is applauded as the only way to build a healthy attachment with your baby and some settings it feels like the “elephant in the room” whereby many might be doing it, but no one wants to speak up about it because no one knows how anyone else feels about it.  In the new moms group I run, I often find that moms are reluctant to admit that they are co-sleeping or are feeling guilty about it.  I will typically bring it bring it up and work on normalizing it in the group setting so that no one feels like they are doing something “wrong.”  The reality is that nearly 50% of all parents co-sleep at some point in their child’s first year.  Sometimes this is because they have gone into parenting planning to co-sleep and other times it is what is known as “reactive co-sleeping” meaning that it happened, not out of a philosophical commitment to co-sleep, but because it was the only way to get their child to sleep at bedtime or back to sleep in the middle of the night.

As for my position on co-sleeping, just like with any other parenting practice, if it is done safely and is working for your family (not just your child, but your whole family), then that is great.  When families decide to co-sleep, I often encourage them to think about what their long-term plan is.  I will ask if they plan to co-sleep for a defined period of time or if their plan is to co-sleep until their child decides to stop.  According to Dr. Brazelton of Touchpoints, most children will stop co-sleeping on their own by 13 years of age.  However, when co-sleeping stops being something that you find enjoyable or your child isn’t sleeping well, then that can mean it is time for a change.

Many parents contact me when they want to change their co-sleeping circumstances.  This can seem like a daunting prospect if you are feeling like you have no clue how to make this transition.  Here are some tips to help make this a smooth move for everyone:

  • Talk to your child about the move.  Especially if your child is toddler age, this will be very important.  Children most often begin to have very good receptive language by about 1 year old.  Even younger children are starting to take in and process information about all sorts of things that their parents tell them.  You can begin having these conversations even 3-5 days before making the move.
  • Introduce a security object or a transitional object.  This can be a great way for your child to start to learn how to separate from you at bedtime but still have a comfort object nearby for sleeping.
  • Choose an appropriate bed.  If your child is under 2½ or even 3 years old, consider making the transition to a crib rather then a bed.  Parents often tell me that their co-sleeping child “hates” the crib.  I rarely find that this is the case, as it is most often a parent’s perception of their child’s reaction to an unfamiliar space that they have never learned to sleep in.   Children under 2½ typically lack the self control needed to understand the rules of sleeping in a big bed required for staying in the bed all night.  Even if your child learns to climb out of the crib shortly after sleep coaching, you will often have more success with establishing boundaries for a toddler when sleep coaching in a crib.  I will typically encourage parents to spend 3 nights co-sleeping in their child’s room prior to beginning sleep coaching.  This helps the space become familiar before the big step to independent sleep.
  • Choose a sleep coaching method you can follow consistently.  For children who have been co-sleeping, I most often will recommend using a behavioral fading technique like The Sleep Lady Shuffle because it allow parents to use their presence as a secure base of comfort as your child learns a new skill.  It is very important, however, that you not fall back into old familiar patterns of laying down with your child or bringing him back into your bed if you want your child to successfully learn independent sleep.  Consistency is the key and will help to minimize tears as it will make the process less confusing for your child.
  • Trust your child’s ability to learn.  Children are often so much more adaptable then we given them credit for.  If you have confidence in your child’s ability to learn and adjust, especially for an older child who may perceive your ambivalence or uncertainties, then your child will have a greater confidence in this ability as well.

If you are considering or planning to transition your child out of a co-sleeping arrangement and would like assistance or guidance, please feel free to contact me for more information on how I help parents make children to their children’s sleep.


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