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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Help Your Child Sleep Independently

November 14, 2013

By Claire McCarthy M.D.

Boston Children's Hospital

"Sleep is most perfect when it's shared with someone you love."

Someone once said that 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 choose to do it that way, with a "family bed" and everyone snuggled in together. It's perfectly fine to do that. 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 is going on, 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 those evenings when you have guests, really want to hang out with your spouse, or have lots of chores to do before you can go to bed yourself.

If you are finding yourself cranky because you are sleep-deprived and/or 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 important. Separation anxiety peaks at around 18 months. So if your child is about 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, like starting at a new day care or welcoming a new sibling (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 on how to help your child sleep independently:

  • Make their sleeping space appealing. A cool bed like a bunk bed, a bedspread with the favorite cartoon character, or soft, snuggly sheets in the crib -- these 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; 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 each night (or as you can)sit a bit further away. 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 to the ice cream store) to celebrate a night spent in their 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 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.


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