When should my child be sleeping in his own bed?
Children often sleep alongside parents or siblings as they are growing up. This practice is termed “co-sleeping”, and typically, it occurs on a nightly basis for an extended period of time: weeks, months, or in some cases, years. Many families find co-sleeping a good way spend time together and bond as a family, or to reduce their child’s stress around falling asleep or waking during the night. It is also popular among breastfeeding mothers during their child’s infancy.
While sharing a bed might ease pressures on families while children are very young, the habit of co-sleeping can pose problems as children mature. By the time their children are 2 – 2 1/2 years old, most parents will be eager to have them sleep easily through the night in their own beds.
Why should my child learn to sleep alone?
Encouraging independent sleep in children as they mature is important for several reasons:
- Extended co-sleeping can discourage children from achieving what’s known as “night time independence”. Children with night time independence are confident that they can fall asleep on their own, and know how to comfort themselves if they are stressed or anxious around sleep – key steps in healthy emotional development.
- Frequently, pre-school and school-aged children have fitful sleep cycles. Having a child kicking, tossing and turning in their bed can interrupt parents’ sleep, leading to exhaustion and stress throughout the day.
- Parental intimacy is often compromised when their children sleep with them. This can have a detrimental effect on a couple’s relationship, affecting communication and physical closeness.
How do I break the cycle of co-sleeping with my school-aged child?
If your child refuses to sleep alone, or wakes up crying during the night, and only stops when you are near, he might be experiencing separation anxiety at night. This pattern is also known as “night-time separation anxiety”. Night-time separation anxiety is common among children up to 3 years old, but older children can experience it as well.
Here are some things you can do to ease night time separation anxiety and help your child sleep alone:
- Develop a regular daily routine. The same waking, nap time, and bedtimes will help your child feel secure, which can help them fall asleep more easily. Have a bedtime routine – for example, bath followed by story time and a brief cuddle. Consistency and clear communication is key.
- Keep lights dim in the evening and expose your child’s room to light, preferably natural, as he wakes. These light patterns stimulate healthy sleep-wake cycles.
- Avoid putting your child to sleep with too many toys in his bed, which can distract him from sleeping. One or two “transitional objects”, like a favourite blanket or toy, however, can help a child get to sleep more easily.
- Don’t use bedtime as a threat. Model healthy sleep behaviour for your child, and communicate that sleep is an enjoyable and healthy part of life.
- Avoid stimulants like chocolate, sweet drinks, TV and computer use before bed time. Children ideally need to relax and “wind down” for at least 1 hour before bed time.
Some other strategies to reduce your child’s dependence on co-sleeping include:
- Wean your child from your bed over time. For example, you might plan to spend part of the night on a mattress on the floor of your child’s bedroom or sleep with him for a few hours in his bed before returning to your own.
- Use a baby monitor to help a child who wakes at night communicate with you or your partner. This will also reduce the likelihood of him walking to your bedroom. If your child communicates to you through the monitor, visit him in his bed to reduce disturbance.
- Use rewards, such as The Quirky Kid Tickets to measure improvements in your child’s independent sleeping. For example, a partial night spent in his own bed will earn him a yellow ticket, while a full night sleeping alone will get him a red one. The child might collect tickets to exchange them for a prize.
We offer a range of services, workshops and individualised consultations to support children with sleeping difficulties. Please contact us for more information.
University of Michigan Health System (2011). Sleep problems. Retrieved September 23, 2011 from http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/sleep.htm
Brazelton, T. Berry and Joshua D. Sparrow (2003). Sleep: The Brazelton Way. Perseus Books.
Kimberley O’Brien (2011). Interview on Co-Sleeping with children and strategies for parents.
Keller, M. A. and Goldberg, W. A. (2004), Co-sleeping: Help or hindrance for young children’s independence?. Infant and Child Development, 13: 369–388.