Serving Up a Toddler Co-Sleeping Eviction Notice
Thanks for being the voice of reason in all matters. I’ve been reading your column since before I had kids – back when it was lots of really useful advice about beauty products! I am always impressed with your ability to take a complex situation and boil it down to the bare essentials.
We are knee deep in a toddler sleep issue that is entirely our fault. We have a now 20-month old who we sleep trained in the past. When I stopped breastfeeding he finally slept through the night. It was glorious glorious three weeks. Then we moved to a new house that was under renovation, lived with my in-laws for 6 weeks with him in a pack-n-play that he doesn’t sleep well in, went on summer vacation, visited my parents, and we now have a toddler who is in our bed every night at 2:30 a.m. We are slowly losing our minds.
Here’s our current routine: play, bath, storytime (in our bed, I know! I know! This is the first misstep), then we lie down with him and he falls asleep around 8:30 or 8:45. We transfer him to his crib really easily. He sleeps there until about 2:30am. He wakes up crying. We go into his room. We’ve tried everything to get him to go back to sleep in his crib at that point — rubbing his back in his crib, rocking him in a rocker in his room, letting him cry for about ten minutes. Nothing works. He just stands there and screams and points to our room. We are tired (and I am 14 weeks pregnant) so we give in, put him in our bed and he falls asleep instantly. He usually sleeps until 7:00 or 7:30am.
We do not want this routine to continue, especially with a new baby on the way. He sleeps much better in his own crib, and we sleep better without a sweaty thrashing toddler between us. We keep saying we are going to stop doing bringing him into our room, but every night he’s back in our bed. In part, I think, because we don’t really know where to start.
I would start by removing your bed and your room from his bedtime routine. And get him to START the night in his crib, without the stealthy transfer once he’s already asleep. By making your bed and your presence the cozy, familiar place for stories and sleep, it’s understandable that when he wakes up somewhere else (alone) that he’s going to feel disoriented and annoyed.
Move storytime to his room. He doesn’t have to be in his crib — you mention there’s a rocker, so you can either use that or swap it out for something bigger like an oversized beanbag chair that all three of you can hang out on. (Although with another baby coming, I’d probably caution against making Both Parents an essential part of bedtime — the reality is you’re probably going to have to start splitting up or trading off at some point. But feel free to cross that bridge when you come to it; the top priority now is to get this kid starting and ending the night in his own space.) Make it cozy and loving and fun. And after storytime, he goes right to his crib. You might need to add an additional step here, like playing music or a crib soother or a special lovey.
And you might need to do a little sleep re-training so he remembers how to get to sleep without both of you lying there with him. That re-training can take several different paths — you can go straight back to whatever method you used the first time, or modify it to move a bit more slowly (i.e. you stay in the room in the rocker for a few nights, offering verbal soothing cues or timed back pats vs. leaving the room entirely from the get-go). But the top goal is that he will start the night in his crib, and eventually he will put himself to sleep there and not in your arms or your bed. Hopefully with just a little trial-and-error, based on your previously training experience and the fact that he does consistently fall asleep around the same time each night.
Will this be a miracle overnight end to the 2:30 a.m. waking? Probably not. It’s a habit, and is going to take some time to break it. HOPEFULLY by moving storytime and taking your bed out of the nightly routine, he’ll stop jolting himself awake and being like, “HEY WAIT A SECOND” and getting himself immediately super worked up because you pulled a sneaky move on him.
Break YOUR Bad Habits, Parents
And unfortunately, in all my experiences, the only way to stop bringing a kid into your bed at night is to…stop bringing the kid into your bed at night. I know, I KNOW! It’s the middle of the night and you’re exhausted and your resolve buckles and you just want to sleep. I’ve been there, done that. But every night you do it, you simply reinforce that habit as the routine. And toddlers love their routines, and the logic of “but you sleep so much better in your own crib!!” doesn’t really fly in toddler world. If you do end up offering an additional step in the storytime-to-crib transition, that might help you again in the middle of the night — turn on the crib soother/music, offer a sippy cup of water or lovey. Do NOT take him out of the crib, repeat whatever sleep-training trick you did at bedtime. (Sit in the rocker and verbally soothe, or leave and go outside for Ferber-style check-ins, etc.) And make sure you do the SAME thing, night after night, rather than just trying something new or different each time in hopes of a miracle. Take turns with your spouse so you both are getting somewhat decent sleep every other night.
And yeah, breaking the 2:30 a.m. transfer habit is going to suck. Imma guess that it’ll take about 2-4 weeks at this point, given his age and the amount of routine upheaval he’s been through. No one wants to be dealing with consistency and sleep-training/redirection nonsense in the middle of the night, or listen to a ticked-off toddler protest for an hour or more. But it will be worth in the long term, for all of you. Every night you cave you’re reinforcing that yes, this is the routine. And while I’m not strictly opposed to co-sleeping when it actually results in better, longer sleep for EVERYBODY in the bed, that’s not what’s happening here.
You Can Do This!
Toddler sleep is darkest before dawn, and once you get it sorted out and everybody sleeping where you want them to sleep, the sunrise is truly a glorious thing.Published November 7, 2016. Last updated July 15, 2017.