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The Hows, Whys & Whens of Transitioning a Co-Sleeping Child

Dec19

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Dear Amy,

Topic: Co-sleeping. I have an almost-three-year-old who I did NOT co-sleep with when he was teeny tiny but a series of life changes and events (that I shall not bore you with) got us to a point where we actually tried bringing him into our bed when he was around 18 months and we’ve never looked back. For now, we all enjoy our cozy little arrangement and sleep blissfully through the night. I have a second baby on the way and I guess for the first little while we will have BOTH boys in our bed (oy). I’m truly not a hemp-skirt-wearing, incense-burning, breastfeeding-until-they’re-5 kinda girl and even saying the words “family bed” makes me envision these poor boys who, in high school, won’t be able to score a girlfriend cuz I’ve effed them up with a whopping Oedipal complex. But for right now, despite how I thought I’d feel prior to becoming a mom, I LIKE co-sleeping with our son (we’ll see how it goes with two), so does my husband and it’s truly the only way I’ve managed to get any sleep in 3 years.

SO I follow your blog and I know that you co-sleep with Ezra and did as well with Noah. My question is, when did you decide to move Noah into his own crib/bed and did he go willingly? Did you WANT to get him sleeping on his own or did you just feel like it was the right thing to do? Did you ever have to resort to crying it out? My son’s struggled with sleeping from about 3 months onward (he had a really sleepy period right at the beginning and we thought we’d scored with an awesome sleeper. Clearly not the case) and I’ve never been able to Ferberize or do the cry-it-out deal. I know it’s controversial but are you willing to share your true feelings on the family bed/co-sleeping issue?

Much obliged,
The Closeted Hippy

Isn’t that always the way with kids? You have all your grand parenting ideals and plans all perfectly mapped out, and then THEY show up and mess everything up with their PERSONALITIES and OPINIONS and stuff.

So I’ve already sort-of addressed a few of your questions earlier this week about my personal history with co-sleeping, which honestly, is pretty brief and hardly hippy-like either. Noah slept with us for just his first few months — since I had a terribly low milk supply and was never able to exclusively breastfeed him, he generally only nursed for comfort and a big fat bottle before bed would conk him out pretty darn well. Once he no longer demanded boob in the middle of the night, we decided it was time for the crib. And by “we” and “decided” I of course mean that he just sort of…fell asleep in his crib one night and stayed asleep until morning. Huh. By three or four months old, he was in the crib every night, all night. I missed it, but I was (admittedly) a nervous co-sleeper. It wasn’t something I’d ever intended to do (hence the unused Pack-N-Play bassinet) and I was duly terrified of 1) smothering the baby, or 2) turning into one of those families on Supernanny who can’t get their six-year-old to sleep in his own bed without tantrums and tears and hysterics.

This time…eh, I’m way more chill about the whole sleep thing. Ezra IS exclusively breastfed (which: YAY. LOVE. HAPPY.), and that means more frequent meals around the clock. And THAT means co-sleeping works best for me, right now. He is starting to sleep longer stretches at night, however, and yes, I do fully intend to transition him to his own bed sooner rather than later. As I mentioned in Monday’s column, we do occasionally have him start the night in his crib. We don’t expect him to stay there all night yet, and we retrieve him at the first sound of fussing. I’m noticing less and less of a sleep-time disparity between the nights in the crib and the nights in bed with us, so…that’s pretty good, I guess.
As for our “plans” to transition him to the crib, well…obviously I hope he’ll simply start sleeping in the crib longer, bit by bit, on his own. (OH HAI NAIVETE.) Not really forcing it, but gently and repeatedly encouraging it. I do think that little babies sleep how they sleep, and there’s really nothing you can do to change those habits much. But I also think that sleep IS a skill, a valuable skill, and that at some point we as parents need to move beyond the “good night sleep at any cost” survival mode and start thinking about our children’s long-term sleep habits. And in our culture, since kids don’t generally move from their parents’ house to their own place, complete with a spouse to sleep with, children DO need to be okay with sleeping alone and gain the ability to put themselves back to sleep if they wake up prematurely. Personally, I’m kind of lazy and find imposing parental decisions on babies to be easier than dealing with the ironclad will of a toddler, so that’s my primary reason for the “sooner rather than later” approach. (My toddler’s will and resistance to change is TERRIFYING. I will go up against a dozen squalling infants instead of dealing with that.)

I’m not, however, advocating any particular sleep training plan here. It’s so not one-size-fits-all. Noah was a Fuss It Out baby — he needed to let out a few squawks before settling down. It wasn’t really crying, lasted less than five minutes, and if we went and picked him up we would basically reset the bedtime clock to zero and need to start over with a wide-awake but overtired baby. Ezra is not a Fuss It Out baby. His fussing escalates into full-on screaming within minutes, and that screaming is NOT leading to sleep, no way, no how. Cry It Out would be disastrously cruel, and most likely ineffective. If push comes to shove, we’ll try the No Cry Sleep Solution, or something similar that will keep the tears and anxiety (for him AND me) to an absolute minimum.

It’s a total balancing act of following your child’s lead and particular personality…and yet also remembering that you ARE the parent, and if you believe your child is ready to sleep in their own bed, it’s up to you to make that happen, even if it’s occasionally less than pleasant.
Now! After spending soooo many paragraphs talking about myself, let’s get back to you. You don’t really want to move your son to his own bed yet. That is wholly and totally your call. My sister co-sleeps with her two-and-a-half year old, and is also sort of grudgingly starting to make plans for a Big Boy Bed sometime around his third birthday. Personally, I cannot imagine having Noah in bed with us — I would not sleep at ALL with the way that kid sleeps all spread-eagled, occasionally whacking my head with his jabby limbs. But I listen to my sister talk about what a wonderful, treasured experience co-sleeping has been for them, and I admit that I will be terribly sad when I no longer wake up to Ezra’s lovely little body next to mine.

Here would be my concerns, however, about keeping both kids in your bed:

1) Safety for the new baby. Three-year-olds aren’t going to possess that natural instinct and awareness of an infant’s body in their sleep, or understand the importance of keeping blankets down and away, or always remember that they can’t just climb over Mama to get out of bed without checking to make sure they aren’t going to land kneecaps-first on Baby Brother’s torso. I’d go with a bedside co-sleeper, to give the baby his own safe area away from Big Brother’s.

2) Sleep disturbances for the older child. So babies CRY. They wake up a LOT. You and your husband will wake up a lot. And so will your son, most likely, if he’s in the room. It’s hard enough for adults to deal with the sleep deprivation of life with an infant, and it will not be any easier for your son if he’s waking up at night too. And oh my God, is there anything more hideous than an overtired toddler? I’ve sensed that Noah occasionally wakes when Ezra is getting a middle-of-the-night diaper change in the next room over, and sure enough, the next morning is an endless parade of drama and I-don’t-wanna-get-uuuup and meltdowns over the Wrong Kind Of Waffle.
You didn’t really ask about whether it would be better to move your older son to his own bed before or after the baby, and I’m glad you didn’t. Because the hell if I know. Just this week, Noah started coming into our room in the morning and crawling in bed with us, then falling sound asleep for another hour or so. He has never, EVER done this or expressed any interest in being in our bed before. But he’s figured out that Baby Brother gets to sleep there, so here we are. It’s a little crowded.

So…to answer this one last question: Did you WANT to get him sleeping on his own or did you just feel like it was the ‚Äúright‚Äù thing to do?

For Noah: Yes. And yes.
For Ezra: No, not yet. And then mostly yes, sort of, but I’m still fluid in my plans and intentions and prepared to be completely humbled by a baby who has his own agenda.

Don’t forget to visit Amalah’s must-read weekly Pregnancy Calendar.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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6 Responses to “The Hows, Whys & Whens of Transitioning a Co-Sleeping Child”

  1. citymama Dec 19 at 3:05 pm Reply Reply

    Our now 3 and a half year old slept exclusively with us until he was crawling. THen he had a futon on the floor in our room and would do his best to climb his tiny baby self into bed with us when he woke up in the morning or if he woke up in the night. He has a big boy (very tiny) Ikea bed at the foot of our bed now (we live in miniature loft in the city).
    But let me say the transition to fully sleeping on his own from getting in our bed in the early hours of the morning took TIME.
    I am also expecting another one, and while my son will sometimes want to snuggle in the morning he no longer gets in our bed at night, even after a bad dream, and I am so so glad.
    If you don’t want both kids in the bed together for a long time, start the transition now as it will likely take much longer than you expect. Remember you don’t have to move your child out of the room, baby steps! When the new baby comes making changes to your toddlers routine, whether it’s the potty or food or sleeping will be a lot harder, because lets face it, a baby is a big effing change for everyone.

  2. Jess Dec 20 at 12:21 pm Reply Reply

    I had the same situation with a baby that slept wonderfully for the first few months, then decided that night-time was awful. He was also a screamer if left on his own in his crib while he was awake, and would happily sleep most of the night without wake-ups if he was in bed with us.
    HOWEVER – both my husband and I slept terribly with him in bed with us. It was awful, I don’t mind saying, and after several months of severe sleep deprivation (which no one had any sympathy for since the baby was past the “newborn” stage), we bit the bullet and tried cry-it-out. We did wait until he was a full year old before even considering that, though – old enough to understand about night-time and sleep, but young enough to not be as stubborn as a full-fledged toddler. And it worked, but was stressful and something I would have avoided if I could have.
    He does fine now (16 months old), but clearly still prefers to sleep with us. We give in once a week or so, especially if he wakes up within one or two hours of the alarm going off in the morning. Other than that, he sleeps in his crib from 7 pm until 6 am with normally one wake-up around 10 or 11 pm (he’s still nursing, so I feed him and he goes back to sleep – I assume this will stop when he weans), and rarely another wake up later on (2 or 4 am).
    If I could have dome it comfortably, I would have had no problem with co-sleeping for several years, it just didn’t work for us.

  3. Tamara Dec 20 at 6:09 pm Reply Reply

    I had such a difficult time with even the concept of Ferberizing – the idea of letting my son cry for any extended length of time just broke my heart, and I didn’t sleep well with him in our bed, so we struggled with sleeping for a long time. It wasn’t until he was 9 months old that someone recommended a book called Good Night Sleep Tight by Kim West (the Sleep Lady) – and it was exactly what I was looking for. It talks about putting your child into bed and then sitting by them, talking and patting and shushing, but not picking them up. So they’re learning to sleep on their own, but you’re there with them through it all, providing love and support without providing any sleep crutches. And then you slowly work your way out of the room, until tada! I really can’t recommend it enough – my son is a champion sleeper now. We sleep so well, I may just have another!

  4. heather Dec 23 at 5:25 pm Reply Reply

    A good way to do a gentle transition is to let your child nap in their own bed, even if they’re still in your bed at night. Toddlers are generally very keen to be independent, and they LOVE the idea of their own bed, even if they’re not developmentally ready to be away from mommy for an entire night yet.
    As long as they’re keen on the idea, letting them nap in their own bed is a great first step towards eventual sleep independence. One day, they’ll decide they like their bed so much they’d like to try spending the whole night there. That might be at age 2 or at age 5. But trust me, they will NOT still be exclusively co-sleeping by the time they’re teenagers, even if you do NOTHING to ‘encourage’ them out of your bed.
    There are safety concerns about a baby and an older child in a bed. There are ways to be safe. Do some research on this topic to be prepared if he does not want to leave anytime soon.
    How you get your child to sleep is up to you, and even the methods often decried as “spoiling” or causing “too much dependence” are just fine. They will outgrow them. My son nursed to sleep until he was 2.5. He started the night in his own bed then joined us when he woke up in the night. At some point, he stopped joining us. He’s 10 now, he does not still nurse to sleep!
    My daughter is now 2, she has never been in a crib, nasty raised cages that they are (think about why they’re way up off the ground — solely for convenience of parents, it has nothing to do with safety or comfort or sleepiness!) We have a single bed beside our bed which she has used since about 14mo to start the night, then joins us when she wakes. She also has a mattress on the floor in her bedroom, where she naps. She nurses to sleep most nights, or we wear her to sleep in a sling. We’re completely relaxed and confident that she will move to independence when SHE is ready, and that forcing her to do it before she is ready will only result in her needs for attachment and dependence increasing and manifesting in other areas!

  5. Nicole Dec 25 at 8:45 am Reply Reply

    Our baby is almost 7 months old and has co-slept since he was born. He still wakes up a couple times during the night to nurse. The other night after a day of traveling, and exhausted parents, he fell out of bed! Thankfully I had a stack of pillows for him to land on and then roll off, but it was one of the scariest moments of my life. After some tears, from both of us, he was fine. The next day we got an extra-long bed rail, and that has worked great for us. We’re very lucky he wasn’t hurt, and I wish we had gotten the rail sooner.

  6. lydia Dec 26 at 7:43 pm Reply Reply

    When the second baby came, we just split up the whole family. Me and baby in the queen bed, and Daddy and the big girl in the kids room. Later, it turned out the baby slept better by himself in a crib, so now he’s down the hall by himself and me and the committed co-sleeping big girl are in the queen with Daddy camping on a floor mattress nearby (which is supposed to be daughters bed…but you know). Now that they’re almost two and four my next project is to get them in a room together. We’ll see how that goes. I don’t think I’ve actually slept alone with my husband in 3 plus years.

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