The family bed divides public opinion (and families, too) despite being a common feature of most cultures around the world. What’s less controversial is the parental impulse to kick the kid out — or at least start encouraging their retreat — by toddlerhood. But ending a co-sleeping arrangement can be very upsetting for a child. After all, it’s a big change for a kid who is used to the comfort of kicking their parents all night. So if the bedtime story isn’t sending them to sleep, parents will need to do something else to help ease this transition.
“Start by talking about them getting a bed in their own room,” recommends Dr. Roseanne Lesack, a licensed psychologist, board-certified analyst, and director of a child psychology unit at Nova Southeastern University. “Have them be a part of that process.”
Parents should make it clear to the kid what getting their own room means, and let them help pick out the bed, the bedding, and the transitional objects that can help them self-soothe. Then, when it comes time for the toddler to actually sleep in that bed, the real sleep training begins. It’s a slow process and it has to be in order to preserve the trust kids have in their parents.
The first night, a parent should sit on the bed with the child after the bedtime ritual, and stay there until the child falls asleep. Even with the comforting presence of a parent, the first night may be restless. After the child falls asleep, the parent can leave. Once the child is used to that, the parent moves farther away, perhaps to the edge of the bed, and stays until the child falls asleep. After the child is used to that, the parent can stand next to the bed, and so on. The point is to take small steps away from the kid and toward the door, and let them adjust to each change, until the final step: leaving the room.
“There are a million ways of dividing up these steps to be smaller for your child,” says Lesack. “It’s really based on what your child needs and what your family is comfortable doing.”
It’s a technique called fading, and it usually works – as long as parents take the time to let the child become acclimated to each new situation.
“Before going on to that next step, I would have three nights in a row of success,” advises Lesack. “Success is when the child is not upset, is not crying, and falls asleep within a normal time frame. I wouldn’t move further away if the child is upset.”
How to Transition a Toddler from Co-Sleeping
- Talk to the child about what it means to have their own room and own bed.
- Sit with the child at first as they fall asleep, and then slowly move closer to the door with each phase.
- Only move onto a new phase once a child has acclimated to the current one.
- After three days in a row of falling asleep without tears and in a normal amount of time, consider the child acclimated.
- The last phase is leaving the room altogether. If that is too upsetting, leave for a short amount of time, and then return until the child falls asleep. Keep the three-day rule before extending the time.
Falling asleep is probably less of an issue for the child than waking up in the middle of the night alone. When that happens, it’s okay to enter the room, but try to repeat the bedtime process. If the kid fell asleep with Dad halfway across the room, Dad should return to that spot until the child self-soothes and falls asleep again.
The final step may be the most difficult. That can be mitigated by leaving the room for a set period of time, and then returning until the child falls asleep. Start with three minutes. Once the kid can handle that, up it to five. Eventually the child will fall asleep when the parent is out in the hall. And that’s when the transition is complete.
Sure, it will probably seem like it takes forever. But there is an endpoint. And having that patience can mean better sleep for parents and child, as well as a happier kid. But parental patience is only part of the process. The child has to be ready to accept the new situation, too.
“If you fade yourself out slow enough, there shouldn’t be any crying,” says Lesack. “If there is long, dramatic crying, or problem behavior, you either have to decrease that step, or consider the possibility that your child isn’t ready to give up co-sleeping.”