Last reviewed by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School on December 29, 2009
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
"Sleep is most perfect when it is shared with a beloved."
Those words were written by English author D.H. Lawrence and most small children would wholeheartedly agree. You can't blame them, really, for wanting the people they love best in the world close by.
Some families have a "family bed" that everyone snuggles in together. That's perfectly fine. With infants, however, a "co-sleeper" attached to the side of the bed is a better idea, to prevent anyone rolling over onto them.
Some families don't have a family bed, but do something in between: their children fall asleep with them and then get moved to their own beds, or join them in the middle of the night.
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The Downsides of Togetherness
If everyone is happy with whatever variation on independent vs. shared sleep they've chosen, great. But there can definitely be downsides to having Junior in bed with you.
Kids can take up space, kick, pull blankets off and otherwise make sleeping hard for everyone. There's no privacy, should parents want to be intimate. And when children need you to lay down with them while they fall asleep, it can be hard on evenings when you have guests, just want to hang out with your spouse, or have lots of chores to do before you can go to bed yourself.
If you're cranky because you're sleep-deprived and frustrated, it's time to teach Junior to sleep on his own. That doesn't make you a bad parent. On the contrary, being happy and well-rested tends to make you a better one.
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Timing Is Everything
One caveat before we get to the how-to's: Timing is everything. Separation anxiety peaks at around 18 months. So if your child is around that age and has been particularly clingy, it might be best to wait a couple of months. Ditto if there is anything major going on in your child's life, such as starting at a new daycare or welcoming a new sibling. (It's best to make the transition before that happens!) While moving to a new house can sometimes make sleeping in their own room a natural change, it can also be stressful. Some co-sleeping while they acclimate may be necessary.
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Keys to Success
Here are some ideas to help your child sleep independently:
- Make her sleeping space appealing. A cool bed like a bunk bed, a bedspread with a favorite cartoon character, or soft, snuggly sheets in the crib can make a difference. If your child is old enough, involve her in outfitting her bedroom so that it's somewhere she wants to be.
- Talk to your child about the change. Obviously, this won't work for infants and toddlers. But if your child is preschool age or older, talk to him about sleeping alone before you begin; talk about how he's a big boy and can sleep alone, and stress that you will be nearby if he needs you.
- Light helps. The dark can be scary. Use nightlights or lamps with low-wattage light bulbs.
- Consider music. A little soft background music, such as lullabies or classical music, can be soothing to some children.
- Have calming nighttime rituals. Going straight from rough-housing to bed rarely works well. Try a bath, followed by curling up to read stories together or sing lullabies. (Your child won't care if you're off-key).
- Use "loveys." If there's a blanket or a stuffed animal that means a lot to your child, make sure they have it with them at bedtime. While loveys can be hard to create if your child doesn't already have one, sometimes a special trip to the toy store to pick out the special stuffed toy to snuggle with works.
- Ease into it. If your child is fine with the change, great. If not, try sitting next to her as she falls asleep, then sit a bit further away each succeeding bedtime (or as you can). If she cries, talk to her and let her know you're there. If she needs it, go to her and give her a hug, then go back to where you were.
- Be consistent. This is hard, because there will be some nights when you really want to give in. But if you do, the whole process will take longer. So when you get your little nighttime visitor, or get called to the crib, give your child lots of hugs and kisses, and let him know he needs to stay in his bed.
- Use positive reinforcement. This also isn't applicable to infants and toddlers. But older children like being recognized for their accomplishments. So a trip to a special park or ice cream store to celebrate a night spent in their own bed may make them more likely to do it again!
It's very important to be patient. Achieving independent sleep for your child can be a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process. With determination and loving firmness, sooner or later everyone will be snoozing in their personal space. And while you're in the midst of it, wondering if having personal space will ever truly be possible, remember that children are small for such a short time. There will come a day when you really do miss their breath on your cheek and their tiny hand on yours.
Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.