How to stop co-sleeping: An age-by-age guide

No one sets out to co-sleep for life, but how do you break the habit? Experts break down how to quit co-sleeping at every age.

Photo: iStockphoto

Ashleigh Warren-Lee didn’t set out to co-sleep with her baby, but she learned within the first few weeks of his life that wee Bennett slept best as close to her as possible. So, for much of the first 16 months, Bennett slept in bed with her. Warren-Lee’s husband, meanwhile, was relegated to a twin mattress on the floor.

After that, the couple moved his crib into their room, removed the rail on one side and pushed it up against the bed. That worked well for a few months, but Warren-Lee knew she had to move Bennett into his own room for good, and getting pregnant with her second child was the motivation she needed. “I thought, ‘We cannot have two kids with us in this one room,’” she recalls. So they got Bennett a new big boy bed and Warren Lee slept in it with him, then moved to a separate mat on the floor. By about age two, Bennett was successfully sleeping on his own in his room.

Many parents fall into co-sleeping as they struggle to get enough sleep in the first few months with a newborn, says Allison Briggs, founder of Sweet Dreams Sleep Solutions in Vancouver. Others set out to co-sleep with their kids as a way to promote attachment. Regardless of why parents start, there often comes a point when they’re ready to stop. Whether you’ve got a new baby on the way, you and your kid are not sleeping well or you’re just ready to have your bed back, here’s how to make your child’s transition out of your sleeping space and into their own as smooth as possible, no matter their age.

How to stop co-sleeping with your newborn to 18-month-old  

The good news is your baby’s sleep habits are still highly adaptable at this age, but to train your infant to be comfortable in their own bassinet or crib, you’ll need to be consistent about making sure that all sleep happens in that space. “Many parents say, ‘but I take a nap, why can’t we take a nap together?’ But baby doesn’t understand that,” says Alanna McGinn, a sleep consultant in Burlington, Ont. And while it might be tempting to bring her into your bed for those last few hours of sleep after she wakes or feeds, she won’t get why it’s OK at 4 a.m., but not midnight. In fact, you should keep your bed off limits even for cuddling for the first three months after you’ve stopped co-sleeping, says Briggs.

Start the transition by making sure your baby has a safe place to sleep, without blankets, bumpers and stuffies, and that the room is dark. It can be helpful for your baby to sense you are near, so some moms sleep with their baby’s bed sheet before putting it in the crib. A noise machine can also help babies and kids of all ages sleep soundly.  Mom sleeping in bed with her baby12 things to stop telling a parent who co-sleeps

Whether you try the Ferber method, let your baby cry it out or use a more gradual method like sitting in the room in a chair and slowly moving the chair out of the room over several nights, sleep training teaches your baby to fall asleep independently. This could take anywhere from three nights to a few weeks–keep in mind the more gentle the process, the longer it will likely take, and you’ll have more success if you implement consistent routines and keep a watchful eye on when your baby is tired to make sure he naps and goes to bed when needed. It may also be helpful to reach out to a sleep consultant who can help you come up with a sleep training plan that you’re comfortable with.

How to stop co-sleeping with your 18-month to four-year-old

At this age, you should always start with communication, says McGinn. “It’s not fair to the child if you’ve been allowing this to go on for a few years and suddenly one night you say, ‘I’m done,’” she says. Start talking to your kid about the importance of sleep and how everyone will sleep better in their own beds, and give him a few days to get used to the idea before you start.

Put a positive spin on the new change by getting your child excited about having a ‘big kid’ room, suggests Briggs. When Warren-Lee was ready for Bennett to move to his own bed, she had Grandpa come over and paint the room blue, Bennett’s favourite colour. Then she and her husband and Bennett went out and bought new bedding with his favourite animals on it.

But it’s equally important to avoid the negative nuances of the child moving to their own room. For instance, if your child has a new sibling on the way, he might think he’s being replaced by the new baby, so Briggs suggests transitioning him to his own bed three to six months before or after the baby arrives, so the two events don’t seem related.

When it comes to bedtime, go through a calming and consistent bedtime routine every night, and make sure you include lots of cuddle time, says McGinn. “We often rush it, because it’s the finish line and we want to get it done. But if you put in the time at bedtime, they’ll need you less at midnight.”

To ease the transition, consider putting a mattress on the floor in your kid’s room, and sleeping there for a few nights, suggests Briggs. You can slowly move the mattress further from the bed until you’re no longer in the room at all. A cold-turkey approach can also work, but you should figure out ahead of time how you want to respond if your kid wakes up in the night. For example, if your kid is still in their crib you could come in, reassure them that everything is OK, and then leave (even if they’re crying). For kids who are in a bed and able to get out, some parents gently walk them back to their bed and say good night again. This could happen several times a night while you are transitioning.

Your kid will likely do some hardcore lobbying to get back into your bed, but don’t give in, says McGinn. Even when your kid is sick and you feel like you want to be with them during the night, sleep in their room instead. Consistency at this age is just as important as it is with a baby–don’t let your child sleep in your room under any circumstance during the transition and for at least three months afterwards, says Briggs.

How to stop co-sleeping with your child who is five or up

If you’ve been sleeping with your kid since he was a baby, expect a struggle about moving him into his own bed. “We have to cut these kids some slack,” says McGinn. Talk to them about why it’s important they sleep in their own bed and explain you’ll still have plenty of time for cuddles—they’ll just be during the day.

How long the transition takes really depends on your kid’s temperament and how consistent you are as a parent. Sometimes kids are still sleeping with their parents at this age because they’ve never been given the chance to do anything else, says Briggs. Tell your kid you know they can do it, then stick to your guns by not allowing them into your bed at all during the night. Briggs recalls an eight-year-old client who strongly resisted sleeping on her own—but was already used to it by night three. Remember that, at this age, your kid still needs a consistent bedtime routine filled with love and cuddles. A favourite stuffy to snuggle with can help them feel secure in their own room.

When your kid is successful at sleeping on their own, it’s OK to reward them with a trip to the park or a special ice cream. But be sure to link it back to his independent sleep by saying something like, “Since we’re all so well-rested, we’ve got some energy to go out together today,” suggests Briggs.

If your kid seems particularly clingy in the evenings, or nervous about sleeping on his own, take a closer look to see if there’s anything that might be bothering him or making him anxious. He might simply feel scared about being on his own–in which case you can reassure him that you are nearby, and that his room is safe. But if the anxiety is really getting in the way of sleep, or causing problems in other aspects of his life, it’s worth bringing it up with your child’s doctor.

Read more:
7 surprising things we learned from sleep researchers
Your kids’ bad sleep habits are caused by co-sleeping

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