As kids, my twin sister and I had our own separate bedrooms in our spacious suburban house—hers was carpeted in ‘80s bubble gum pink, mine in royal blue—but we still slept in the same bed every night. Our parents say we had slept better in the same crib, too. My twin would roll over and hold my bottle up to my lips when we were only a few months old. As toddlers, we’d babble in gibberish after lights out. Throughout our childhood, we continued to stay up late together, chattering and curling up under the covers
When my daughters were born—two girls who are just 22 months apart—having them share a bedroom made sense. To begin with, we had no other choice in a two-bedroom house. And how wonderful would it be for them to be as close as my sister and I are to this day? We moved them in together when the youngest was one and the oldest was almost three.
The whole idea of having a separate bedroom for each kid is a relatively recent middle- and upper-class phenomenon in North America, where there are, on average, fewer than two children per household, yet the houses are among the biggest in the world. But look at different cultures and countries where housing costs are higher and space more limited, and sharing rooms—and even beds—is just a given.
Of course, there are pros and cons to both set-ups. While some of us will do whatever it takes to give kids their own rooms for the sake of more privacy and longer stretches of sleep, others are deciding to have them share even when there is space. Spare rooms are being used for guests, offices and play areas, and families are seeing the benefits of kids learning to negotiate and bond with their siblings.
We asked Laura Markham, the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, and Pam Edwards, a paediatric sleep consultant, about the upsides and downsides of making sharing a room work for your family.
Who’s bunking with whom
Some families don’t have a choice, but others do. What if you have more than two kids, or children with a big age gap, or different genders or personalities? While there’s no right answer, here are some issues to consider.
In theory, siblings of any age could share a room, but a good time to make the move is when the younger kid is sleeping through the night, so as not to disturb the other child, says Edwards, who runs Wee Bee Dreaming Pediatric Sleep Consulting in Kamloops, BC. If you have more than two children, their ages might also factor in to how you divide them.
Angela Lecompte lives with her husband and their three girls, ages 11, eight and five, in a typical three-bedroom semi-detached house in Toronto. Lecompte originally had the two older children sharing a room (which is what Edwards usually recommends), but now that her eldest daughter wants more privacy, she’s switched it so the two younger girls are sharing instead.
“For my older daughter, having space now is important. She started puberty and needs her own space and time away from her little sisters, who bug her at times. But we do remind her regularly that she’s the only one in the house with her own bedroom.” Lecompte says it’ll be interesting to see how things play out when her middle child starts demanding privacy too, but for now, it’s working. “They ask me regularly when they’ll get their own rooms,” she says. “Um, never?”
5 things to think about before moving your baby into an older sibling’s bedroom If you have the luxury of another option, parents shouldn’t push a child who doesn’t seem ready to share a room into the new arrangement, says Markham, a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and parents, and is based in New York City. But some siblings are naturally very caring and keen to welcome a younger brother or sister into their space. Markham herself is significantly older than her siblings, but growing up, she had to share her room. “When I was six, my sister was born, and when I was 12, my brother was born,” she says. “I was very nurturing with both of them—my brother even slept in my room when I was 12, and I ended up liking it.” But of course, the opposite could be true. “You can also imagine a 12-year-old who is really lost in their own world and would not want to be bothered by their little brother….I think a lot depends on the relationship between the kids.”
When it comes to sharing a room, gender identity might not be relevant for younger kids, but once children are between ages eight and 10, they may no longer be comfortable changing in front of each other. For that matter, even kids who identify as the same gender want more privacy as tweens, so Markham recommends being sensitive to that and doing what you can to give them more space.
The dream scenario for some families with more kids than available bedrooms is that they all get along and happily share a room. That’s because there are loads of benefits—the friendship, resilience and problem solving, not to mention the extra space it would allow for other things or even more children (if that’s a wish).
“All kids are different, so it’s whatever works for your family, but often, kids really love sharing a room once they’re used to it,” says Markham. “And the reason they love it is because they get closer. They have a soulmate they can spill their secrets to after lights out,” she says. “I have families who put their kids on a double mattress. And the kids love it, because then they’re next to a warm body and they fall asleep better. That way, they don’t wake up scared in the middle of the night—there’s always their sibling to snuggle up with.”
Nicole Jepsen, a mom of two who lives in Cambridge, Ont., has had her six-year-old son and three-year-old daughter share a room since the youngest was 10 months old. Even after moving from a three-bedroom house in Toronto to a four-bedroom home 90 minutes southwest of the city, she plans to keep them rooming together until she hears any complaints. “I get a lot of flack because of them being opposite genders, but I don’t see it as a big deal,” she says. “They sleep better together, and it’s my (maybe unpopular) opinion that we, as adults, prefer to sleep with a companion in the room, so why wouldn’t we allow the same for our kiddos?” Jepsen even got them a bunk bed with a double mattress on the bottom because they sometimes like to share a bed.
Having kids share a room might feel more secure for parents, too. Helena Stones, a mother of five in Victoria, BC, has all of her kids sleep in the same room even though they live in a four-bedroom house. The children’s ages range from two to nine, but because there are two bedrooms upstairs and two downstairs, Stones and her husband feel more comfortable with the kids on the same floor as them. (They came to this conclusion out of necessity—when the eldest was six, he left his bedroom, then in the basement, and walked out of the house in the middle of the night.) They have fit a triple bunk bed, a toddler bed and a crib into the one room. Storage is tight, so they have fewer clothes and do lots of laundry, and toys are kept elsewhere. “The bedroom becomes a jungle gym—the idea of sharing is really celebrated around the kids, so they see it as a positive thing,” says Stones. “The kids love it. They want us to have more babies, but I tell them the next one is going to be a grandkid.”
Of course, sharing a room is not all sunshine and sweet cuddling sessions. Sibling dynamics can be tricky to navigate and add more chaos to life with kids. What if they have different bedtimes? Won’t they wake each other up in the middle of the night? Will they have more trouble falling asleep? Or what if they just hate sharing a room?
Sometimes my daughters take turns singing each other to sleep, and it melts my heart. But the other half of the time, lights out is challenging. My five-year-old is often desperate to fall asleep after a long day at kindergarten, but she struggles to tune out the shenanigans of her three-year-old sister, who isn’t as tired because she still naps for two hours at daycare.
“It can be tricky if their sleep schedules are different,” says Edwards. For instance, if one of your kids is loud or cries a lot, even if you think the other one is used to it and doesn’t fully wake up, the quality of their sleep is lowered, which can be detrimental long term. So you may have to work on that and consider sleep training. Personality differences and sibling rivalry are also some of the toughest issues to overcome, adds Markham. If the relationship is problematic and two siblings just don’t get along, sharing a room doesn’t tend to help the situation.
How to make it work
So how can you make the most out of sharing a room, while negotiating boundaries and solving disputes?
Time it right.
If you have an older child who’s not adjusting well to a baby and already feels like they have to share everything—such as your love and time—you may want to hold off, says Markham. If you’re having a third child and planning on putting the older two children together, do it before the baby arrives so there’s less resentment about the new addition to the family.
Don’t use sharing to solve sleep problems.
For a child who has regular nighttime wakings, it could be a comfort to have a roommate or bed buddy, but Edwards says it likely won’t help existing sleep problems and may introduce new ones. Kids should learn how to self-soothe and sleep independently. “I would never recommend room sharing with the intention of trying to solve sleep problems,” says Edwards. “I would try to tackle that first and use room sharing as a reward for good sleep and not a solution for poor sleep.”
Create personal spaces.
Every kid needs privacy sometimes, but introverts especially crave it. “A lot of introvert kids really need this. They get their energy from being alone,” says Markham. “And if they’re always in the middle of a family and they always have a sibling around, they’re never alone to recharge their batteries.” In lieu of their own room, you could get a bed tent or canopy, or, for older kids, a large bookcase in the middle of the room might help divide the space. Designate special areas for each child’s belongings and give older kids a secure spot, like a box with a lock on it, to keep their treasures away from prying little hands.
Turn up the volume.
White noise is great for winding kids down and blocking out distracting sounds, but my younger daughter doesn’t like it. She also talks to herself before falling asleep, which drives my older daughter bananas. In cases like these, Markham suggests playing relaxing music or an audio story, so kids can focus on that instead of their own voices to self-soothe. That’s what we’ve been doing and it’s working for both girls.
Get bunk beds.
Bunk beds are popular because they not only save space but also visually separate kids for sleep, so they’re less likely to bother each other. Just make sure the child sleeping on the top bunk is at least six years old and that the bed being used meets current safety standards. Always use the ladder to get on and off the top, and only play on the bottom bunk if the lower space is designed by the manufacturer as a play area.
Make the room a quiet zone.
Reserving the room for quiet activities, including reading and homework, is a good way to manage arguments about how the space is used. All the noisy stuff, including playdates, should happen in common areas of the house, like the living room.
If kids don’t learn to solve disputes when they’re young, they’re never going to get it right as grown-ups. “Children certainly aren’t born knowing how to do this, so we need to teach them,” says Markham. While you don’t want to take sides between siblings, you should still help them work out a disagreement, paying attention as soon as it starts, she says. One tip is to draw up a list of rules that you can point to and enforce. Writing things down goes a long way, even if your kids don’t read yet, Markham says. Some good ones for the list are “We are a family, and we always work things out,” “No mean voices or yelling” and “We always clean up our own messes.”
Think about sleep times.
If your kids are close in age and have similar sleep needs, do bedtime routines and stories together. Give older kids a short time limit to chat once they’re in bed. Otherwise, bedtimes should be separated by at least one hour, says Edwards. That timing might seem like more work, but it could be a solution to those bedtime struggles. For example, you may need to let a toddler who still naps during the day stay up later than a school-aged kid, says Edwards.
Separate them for naps.
It’s hard to get two kids sharing a room to settle down at the end of a tiring day, and it’s even harder for afternoon naps. If both kids need to sleep and space allows for it, consider moving the older one to another room or to your own bed (a.k.a. “the big bed”), suggests Edwards (if your eldest is old enough to stay in an adult bed safely). It will be easier for both of them to wind down.
Expect a transition period of three to six weeks to adjust to rooming together, and be patient, says Edwards. “This is normal—don’t give up if it’s not working right away.”