Today I had the pleasure of helping a friend who would like to have her 5 and 8 year-old boys start sleeping in their own beds. Presently the boys share a bed with mom and dad. Co-sleeping offers all sorts of benefits and is very common in the younger years but there comes a time for all children when they need to learn to sleep separately from their parents. This family has made a few attempts to transition the boys to their own room in the past but for the most part, the boys spend every night sleeping alongside their parents. This gives me a great opportunity to introduce the psychology concept of implementing a Behavior Change Plan. Even if co-sleeping isn’t an issue in your family, this is an incredibly useful tool for your parenting arsenal.
Step 1: Identify the Target Behavior
In this case, the behavior is co-sleeping. With other behaviors, it is helpful to do some monitoring of the behavior and analyzing the situations in which the behavior occurs before moving on to the next step. This behavior is pretty straight-forward: The boys sleep with mom and dad every night.
Step 2: Set a Goal. Goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-limited)
In this scenario, the goal is to have the 2 boys sleep all night in their own bedroom. There will be no more sleeping in mom and dad’s room. Co-sleeping is firmly entrenched in their daily routine so we decided a gradual transition would be more manageable and set a goal of 1 month for the transition. A quick single-night transition is Realistic but perhaps not Attainable for this family so we modified the goal by giving them more time to make it SMART.
Step 3: Identify Potential Obstacles
This is a family-wide Behavior Change Plan so 4 people have to be fully on-board with the program developed. Mom would be alright with co-sleeping continuing longer because although the boys are getting big for the family bed, she does get a good night’s sleep with them. Dad is the major motivator for making the transition but mom realizes that the timing is reasonable. The older son is fine with either option. The younger son is less motivated to change. So looking ahead, we can foresee that there may be difficult moments when the younger son is upset with the change and mom may be tempted to revert to the family bed. The whole family should sit down and discuss the plan below before initiating change so everyone knows what to expect. If the boys question the change, a simple statement like, “Mom and dad have decided it’s time for you two to start sleeping in your own beds” will suffice without making it a big discussion. Mom will have to remind herself throughout the process that she has committed to this transition and that there will be benefits to having the boys in their own room (more independence for mom and dad and night, more intimacy between them as a couple, the boys gaining a sense of independence and perhaps even strengthening their bond, etc.). Dad will play an important role in supporting mom throughout this process.
Other practical barriers exist too. There’s a dust mite allergy involved so mom had to do some prep work to get the boys’ beds in working order. Also, the boys are used to a single bed so even though the twin beds are pushed together in their bedroom, mom is going to look for one of those foam connectors you can put between the mattresses to create the appearance of a single bed. The boys are happy to cuddle together still so by supporting that behavior in the new bedroom, we ease the transition away from mom and dad’s bedroom.
Step 4: Develop A Plan
Week 1: Co-Sleeping in Mom & Dad’s Room. We decided to schedule 1 more week of co-sleeping to make sure that mom didn’t feel rushed into the behavior change, to allow everyone another week to be mindful of this experience before it ends, and to get the bedroom set-up just right for the big transition.
Week 2: Co-Sleeping in the Boys’ Room. Now we take dad out of the situation and have just mom fall asleep with the boys in their new bedroom and sleep with them all night. This gives the boys a chance to get used to sleeping in their own room but with the comfort of mom they’re used to. This week will begin on a Friday to be sure we minimize any sleep disruption on school nights. Dad will miss mom for one week but when he gets her back, it will be just the 2 of them, finally.
Week 3: Co-Sleeping at the Start of the Night. Again starting on a Friday, mom will fall asleep with the boys but when she wakes during the night, she will quietly move out of the bedroom and sleep in her own room. Mom may be a little more tired this week so Dad should be ready with that support and encouragement. Mom anticipates the boys will cuddle after she leaves and will be fine for the rest of the night. If either boy gets up and comes to mom and dad’s room, mom will walk them back to their room and remind the boys that they have each other to cuddle and that mom will give them a big snuggle in the morning. This is where mom really needs to commit to the plan, even if the younger boy is upset over the change. She can remind him, “It’s time for you to sleep in your own bed and your brother is there to keep you company.”
Week 4: Snuggles with Mom at Bedtime. Mom will snuggle with the boys in bed for a few minutes but before anyone falls asleep, she will say goodnight and quietly move out of the room and sleep in her own room. Again, if at any point during the night the boys enter her room, they will be walked back to their room.
Step 5: Reward Progress. If mom and dad stick by their decision that this transition is for the good of the family overall and that this is the right time to make the change, praise and daytime snuggles are all that’s necessary to get this plan to work. Some people prefer to use more incentives to motivate change, anything from dessert to points that accumulate toward the purchase of a toy. The utility of incentives depends a great deal on the specific child. Anticipating the worst case scenario of the 5 year-old waking up mom in the middle of the night and crying that he wants to get back in her bed, mom can think about whether he would respond to additional incentives and if so, plan that out in advance. Otherwise, she’ll just be ready with a loving but firm redirection back into his room and the promise of a big hug in the morning.
Step 6: Revisit & Revise. Hopefully in one month, those boys will be happily sleeping in their own bedroom and mom and dad will be enjoying more time to themselves in the evening. They’ll even be able to start planning date nights since the new sleeping arrangement will allow for a babysitter. But it’s possible that some unforeseen obstacle will pop-up during the transition that will need to be addressed and that is no problem. We’ll just rework the plan taking into consideration the changes and keep working toward that goal.
Looking down the road, there may be exceptions to the rule that we need to plan for. For example, what if one of the boys is sick and asks mom to sleep with them. Or what if they’re camping and all sleep together, then the boys expect that again when they get home? My suggestion is to always try to stay as close to the goal behavior as possible. So, if the child is sick, sleep in their room but try to keep away from inviting them back into your room. If you go camping, when you get home just remind them, “At home we sleep in our own beds, but we’ll look forward to sleeping together again on our next camping trip.”
Can you think of a behavior you want to change in your own family? Try out this Behavior Change Plan and become your own mommy psychologist.