Help Your Child Sleep Independently
Last reviewed by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School on December 29, 2009
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some ideas to help your child sleep independently:
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.