Co-sleeping not working? Here’s how to make the transition gently and respectfully

Co-sleeping can be a beautiful, nurturing, and rewarding experience for both parents and children of all ages. It can make overnight feedings easier, nights warmer, memories fonder, and attachment stronger. However, it can also cause major disruption in the family unit, compromising quality and quantity of sleep for everyone.

I wholeheartedly support co-sleeping, provided that it is safe and mutually beneficial. It is a personal choice specific to each family and child, and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ age to start or stop. Where a family may consider making the transition from co-sleeping to their child sleeping independently (own cot and/or room) are situations whereby the co-sleeping is out of convenience (rather than choice), and the family is more sleep deprived than revived.

It is best for all involved when this transition is a respectful and gradual one, and planning in advance will ensure your success.

Before you start:

  • You as the parent must be ready and committed to the change to avoid confusing your child. Choose a time that feels right for you and your family to begin this transition. It’s best if you can clear your calendar – or start over a weekend when you can enlist the support of your spouse, friends or family to help out by day or night as you can expect to encounter a few sleepless (and emotional) nights.
  • Ending the co-sleeping journey can bring up big feelings for both parent and child. At the core of most difficulties surrounding sleep for children (or any change to sleep routine) is feelings of fear – often disguised as insecurity, overwhelm, aggression and separation anxiety. Connection is the cornerstone to success, and establishing trust and security is the most powerful antidote for fear. My tips and strategies for how you can start incorporating some connection tools by day to encourage safety and security here.
  • Acknowledge the mother’s feelings as well as the child’s.  I have worked with some mothers who have felt pressured by their spouse or family to make this transition before they were really ready, and in some cases travel, change in circumstance and house (size) limitations calls for this change to be made prematurely. Grief and sadness are common emotions and having a reliable support network can help empower mum to move forward.
  • Expect this transition to take anywhere from three to seven days (or more) depending on how gradual your approach is. The most effective strategy is that which honors the emotional well-being of parent, child and family unit. Connection tools such as quality one-on-one time, listening, and play can make the world of difference to encouraging security and helping your child transition to independent sleep with greater ease and velocity.
  • If you plan for your child to be sleeping in another room, engage in some play each day in their room and cot/bed – and introduce this at least three days before you begin. Some games include “peek-a-boo”, catchy with a soft ball in and around their sleep space, pillow fights, and hide and seek. This will encourage familiarity with their new bed/room and increase security and confidence.
  • Avoid too much change at once. Attempting to stop co-sleeping during times of illness, milestones, teething, or life transitions such as beginning childcare, introducing a new sibling, or toilet training is not ideal. Change is synonymous with insecurity (fear). Our intention is to make our child feel as safe and loved during this process as possible to gain their cooperation and foster trust. Feelings of rejection due to undesirable timing or a parent rushing the process usually results in heightened insecurity, hence greater resistance – which is counterproductive to a child’s ability to sleep well long-term.
  • Ensure you have a regular day and bedtime routine in place before you start. Children thrive on predictability, and feel safe in knowing what they can expect from day-to-day. Incorporate positive and consistent sleep associations such as: dark room, sleeping bag, white noise, reading a book, singing a song, a kiss and cuddle good night and encourage self settling from four months. It also helps if you can avoid over-tiredness, as this is counterproductive to a child’s ability to accept change gracefully! An age-appropriate awake time together with regular scheduled meals and milk feeds during the day is paramount.
  • Regular night feeds are usually common in a co-sleeping arrangement – and for some families, this is as often as every one to two hours (usually the catalyst for parents wanting to create change!). Stopping co-sleeping doesn’t mean you have to night-wean or stop breastfeeding altogether. However, it will help make the process easier if you can create some awareness as to how often you are feeding overnight and reaching for something just slightly better than what you are currently doing – e.g. you may decide to feed your child every second time they wake instead of at every wake, or you can attempt to extend the time between night feeds by an additional 30 to 60 minutes (and gradually increase these increments over time). Some additional options here.
  • When you are ready, ensure you communicate this change with your child in advance to encourage their cooperation (or as much as possible). Irrespective of age, children understand more than we give them credit for! Books like this can help communicate this change for older children.
  • Understand that crying is a healthy and normal way for your child to express their feelings around any change in their life – especially when changing their routine and/or weaning them from something to which they have become so attached (such as sleeping with you!). If you have met you child’s basic needs – i.e. hunger, stimulation, physical touch – and they are not in pain or discomfort – children will cry to recover from feelings such as grief, loneliness, and dependency. Expect plenty of emotional release for your child (and possibly you) during this process. If you have the bandwidth to support (listen to) your child to offload these feelings regularly by day (i.e tears, frustrations and tantrums), and overnight (i.e. when you remain firm with not bringing your child into bed with you) – this usually ensures a more effective and sustainable solution. Listening involves holding your child close and validating their emotional experience – e.g. “I know this is hard for you sweetheart. I am right here for you, and we will get through this together. I love you, it is safe for you to sleep now.” Listening communicates to your child that they are loved, safe, and that we truly accept everything that they are and are feeling in that moment – no shame, no judgement, no anger and no frustration or wishing for things to be otherwise.
  • Ensure you (as the parent) have the support of a spouse, friend or family to listen to you, or to confide in if the night weaning process evokes any uncomfortable or painful memories from your own upbringing – often disguised as feelings of helplessness, anxiety, frustration, anger or upset during the “listening” process.

 

Solutions:

  1. Stay close, but not too close. Place a mattress on the floor next to the family bed (for either the parent or an older child to sleep on). This ensures you are close enough to provide comfort and reassurance, but far enough apart to ease them into sleeping independently. If you wish to have your child sleeping in their own room, then proceed to number 2 below when you are ready. Three days is the optimal length of time to avoid any change to routine becoming a new sleep crutch.
  2. Camp out in your child’s room. Nights 1-3: place a mattress on the floor in your child’s room. You will co-sleep the entire night with them on the mattress. Nights 4-6: you will sleep on the mattress and your child will sleep in their cot/bed for the full night. Nights 7-9: you may sleep on the mattress only until they fall asleep, going back into your room once they are asleep. Night 10 onward: remove the mattress. You may choose to sit next to your child’s bedside, stand near their doorway, or employ “check ins”. Gradually revoke your intervention by attempting to leave the room before they fall completely asleep. Support any tears or meltdowns this process evokes in your child by listening and validating their emotional experience and offering plenty of cuddles, love and reassurance.
  3. Secure your child’s cot closely to your bed. Leave one side of the cot either half, or completely down (ensuring no room for the baby to fall between the cot and the bed). You can also use a safety approved co-sleeper. This set up allows them the comfort of proximity to mum and dad, whilst becoming familiar with sleeping in their own cot. Once your baby/child is comfortable with this arrangement (try for no longer than three nights), then you can put up the side of the cot and move it a little distance away from the bed (again three nights). On night 7,  move the cot to the other side of your bedroom. The last step obviously is to move his/her cot into their own room. Expect this process to take approximately two weeks.
  4. Empower your toddler. For older children who are no longer sleeping in a cot, allow them to select a new sheet set, curtains, toy to sleep with or room decorations to help them bond with their sleep space. This can also empower them and make the transition from sleeping with mum and/or dad a rite of passage, rather than an eviction! Focus on making their room a cosy, warm and safe space where they want to spend time… and most importantly, sleep!

Additional tips:
* A comforter, or old t-shirt/sheet that either mum or dad has slept in can work wonders with this transition (when used in the child’s cot or bed). If your child is still breastfed, try expressing breast milk over the transitional item for added comfort.
* Consider night weaning in advance for a smoother transition (for babies six months and over).
* Be realistic with timing. This is not an overnight process, and it helps to have the support of your partner or family to share the night-time responsibilities.
* A consistent and age appropriate day and bedtime routine is paramount.
* Focus on an environment optimal for sleep.

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