Some parents make a choice to sleep with their child in the same bed. If co-sleeping is your choice, so-called lifestyle co-sleeping, there is no reason to make a change. There is no set age a child must sleep in their own bed, and there are different norms in different cultures, but most children are typically sleeping in their own bed by the time they start school.
The problem comes when co-sleeping happens routinely to try and solve a problem. This is called reactive co-sleeping. For example, when a child wakes up during the night and is reluctant to go back to their own room, or to sleep alone. If this situation leads to disrupted sleep for you or your child, and you’d like to change things, this article is for you!
Why does my child wake up during the night?
There are lots of different reasons that children wake up, including noise, feeling too hot or cold, being hungry, upset, having had a bad dream or wetting the bed. But crucially, even with no disruptions, we all wake up during the night. Adults and children sleep in cycles, and we often wake up briefly between cycles, up to 6 times a night. A good sleeper will typically roll over and go straight back to sleep, and is unlikely to remember it in the morning.
So if your child is complaining that they are waking up, it may not really be the waking that’s the problem; the issue may be not being able to get back to sleep by themselves.
It might be that you have developed the habit of staying with your child while they fall asleep. Perhaps you gently stroke them, or sing to them. Over time, they have developed an association between your presence, or lying next to you, and falling asleep. This means that when they wake up they are likely to crave the same association in order to fall back to sleep.
Helping your child learn to fall back to sleep
1. Keep the sleep environment consistent
If you play music while your child falls asleep, or have a bedside light on, they will fall back to sleep more easily if there are no changes during the night. This might mean that you decide to use music during a wind down routine, but not after lights out.
2. Provide a security object
A blanket or cuddly toy can help a child feel snug and secure. This builds a positive sleep association, and is something they can cuddle during the night. Of course.. if this beloved object is ever lost or in the wash.. you may have a problem on your hands.
3. Encourage falling asleep independently… approach 1
At the end of the bedtime routine, let your child know that it’s time to fall asleep, tuck them in, give a last hug and a kiss goodnight and leave the room. If your child calls for you, it’s fine to keep checking on them but make the visits brief (less than a minute) and boring. Reassure your child and calmly reiterate that it’s time for sleep. Repeat these short visits as many times as they need to fall asleep.
When you first introduce falling asleep independently, if they wake up later during the night, reassure them as you normally would, for example by letting them come into your bed, or lying down with them. Focus on the goal of falling asleep alone quickly and easily at bedtime first. Research suggests that within a few weeks most children will then start sleeping through the night. If your child still wakes up during the night a few weeks later, encourage them to go back to their own bed and then introduce the same check and reassure approach during the night.
4. Encourage falling asleep independently… approach 2
If your child is anxious about falling asleep alone, small, gradual changes can be just as effective. A more phased approach would be to start sleeping in the same room, though not in the same bed. This approach will take longer but may feel easier. You could move a mattress into your child’s room for a week or so, and start by sleeping on the floor all night. Then you could sit in a chair by the bed until they fall asleep. Every night, move the chair a little further away from your child’s bed, until - after a few weeks - you’re outside the room when they fall asleep.
The Call Back Game - Create Incentive!
For a little extra incentive, you could play the Call Back game.. Ask your child to make 3 golden ‘Call Back’ tickets on cards or pieces of paper. Every night, stick the 3 tickets to the bedroom door. Every time your child calls out, or goes to wake you up, they will lose one of the 3 tickets. You will gently escort them back to bed. When the 3 tickets have gone, you can only say ‘No more Call Backs’ - even when your child gets frustrated! The incentive comes in the morning, when you count up how many of the 3 tickets remain. For every 10 tickets that are still there in the morning, they get a special prize. Spend some time thinking about the prizes they could earn, and then have a chart to record their progress.