When It’s Time for Co-Sleeping to End

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.

Is Your Child’s Room Conducive With Sleep?

What does your child’s room look like?  How much furniture is in it, are there toys in it, are those toys hidden or easily accessible, how many stuffed animals are there on his/her bed?  This is part 2 of our Sleep Hygiene discussion, following up on the last Bedtime Routines post.  You’ve completed your bedtime routine and gone to tuck your munchkin in, but is their room a place where a young child could easily fall asleep?  Getting children to sleep well is very high on my list of parenting priorities so I design their whole room around sleep.  When my little ones move from a crib to a bed they’re basically just enlarging the nearly empty rectangular sleeping space.  When we just had 1 child, his bedroom consisted of a mattress on the floor (why have a bed frame that makes for a falling hazard in his room?), a blanket, a stuffed animal, and a dresser with just clothes in it.  That is literally all that was in his room.  So how did the transition from crib to bed go?  Seamlessly.

Young children don’t need mobiles, they don’t need elaborately decorated bedroom walls or countless glow-in-the-dark stickers on the ceiling; they just need a nice place to rest.  I once saw a well-known psychologist who specializes in couples and sexual relationships speak at a conference and he said, “Bedrooms are for sex and sleeping” so set them up to be conducive with those 2 actives.  For your kids, this translates to “Bedrooms are for sleeping”.  Now that we have 3 boys sharing a room, it looks a bit like a gypsy den with mattresses spread all over the floor but the only other furniture in their room is 1 nightstand to hold a lamp and an alarm clock.  They can jump around in their room during the day with less risk of hurting themselves on excess furniture.  And when bedtime comes, that room cries out for sleep.  If you have a smaller living space and need to store some of your child’s toys or other gear in their bedroom, you can adapt this principle by doing your best to keep toys tucked away in the closet, under the bed, in storage bins with lids – anything that makes it clear that once clean-up is done, the toys stay away until the morning.

As your child gets older, they’ll start to request having more of their own belongings in their room and be able to have more decorations on their walls.  At what age?  There is a huge discrepancy in when your child will be ready for a more ornate room; I’d say somewhere between 3 and 5.  You know your child better than anyone so you’ll get a feel for when they’ve got the bedtime routine down so well that they won’t even be tempted to touch that T-Rex at tuck-in time.  You allow things to enter the bedroom bit by bit over time to test the waters, gently guiding your munchkins along the path to independence.

Bedtime Routines

Yesterday a dear friend asked my advice on managing her tired 10 year-old who gets “tanky” – tired and cranky.  I gave her some quick on-the-spot advice and will elaborate more below, but I just have to take a second to enjoy this landmark event.  I’ve been saying for years and years whenever people ask me what I plan to do when my kids are all in school or ask what aspect of psychology I plan to return to (clinical, research, teaching, consulting), that one day I want to write a book on parenting and psychology and later parlay that into a little consulting career for parents of young children.  People often ask me parenting questions and I’ve enjoyed answering them individually and now that I’ve got this blog up and running, it’s the first step to sharing my tips with a larger audience.  Exciting stuff!

Back to the topic at hand: What to do with a tired child.  This topic is so large I’m going to initially divide it into 4 posts (Bedtime Routine, Bed Time, Sleep Hygiene, and Bedtime Sneakiness) with much more to come on sleep training after that.  As a quick preface to bedtime routines, I must highlight the fact that well-rested kids and well-rested parents are primed for success.  When either party gets tired, parent-child interactions suffer.  Sleep is incredibly important.

Now on to routines: I cannot stress enough the importance of routine in your child’s life.  Children thrive on consistency and predictability; it helps them to navigate through all the changes they are experiencing physically and the new learning experiences they encounter daily.  I will talk more about daily routines in future posts.  Today we’ll focus on bedtime which is arguably the most important part of those routines.  Bedtime routines are not just for kids; they’re an important for adults too and are part of our next psychology lesson: Sleep Hygiene.  This refers not just to how cleanly you are for bed but how your entire sleep routine and environment are set-up and whether they’re conducive with getting a good night’s sleep.  Bedtime routines are just the first aspect of sleep hygiene we’ll discuss.

I think of the bedtime routine as everything that happens after dinner.  After clearing plates and wiping up any crumbs that spilled off of their plates, my kids head straight to picking out their clothes for the next day then off to bath or shower.  Then it’s time for pajamas, hair brushing, dental floss and toothbrushing, then off to story time.  Usually Dad reads because he has not spent as much time with them during the day and I start tackling the dishes and making lunches for the next day so all that gets done before that last child goes to bed and we still have some time to ourselves in the evening.  Each child gets to pick at least one story before bed, more if I got dinner on the table early enough and if bath time goes smoothly.  The number of books is made clear at the start of story time to avoid any later negotiations and the child with the earliest bedtime gets to pick first.  After their story, that child says goodnight to their siblings and Dad and I walk them back for “final potty” and tuck-in (which is a quick event) while Dad gets the next child’s story started.  Then we repeat the process 3 more times before Mom & Dad go off-duty for the night.

It’s the same thing almost every night.  The kids are almost always asleep within minutes of being tucked-in.  I love hearing babysitters say, “The kids went to bed so easily, it was a breeze.”  And grandparents say they’re happy to watch the kids for date night because they’re so well-trained at bedtime.  Having a reliable bedtime routine benefits you and your children.  Yours can be totally different than mine as long as it’s consistent and involves getting them into “calm and quiet” mode to be primed for sleep.  Our routine has changed slightly over the years; for example, we used to read in their beds but after the 3rd child that got a little cramped so now we read in the living room.

Now of course there are going to be some times when the routine is modified.  For example, if we go swimming and shower earlier in the day we skip bath and go straight to pajamas.  Or if we go out to dinner and service is slow and we return home too late to fit in a bath without sacrificing bedtime, as long as they’re not horribly filthy we’ll skip bath.  I let them know the plan on the drive home from the restaurant and remind them as we walk in the door, then off they go to quickly get pajamas on to still have time for a story – unless we’re super late and that needs to be skipped too.  The beauty of a reliable bedtime routine is that the kids can go with the flow for an odd night here and there because they are comforted by the knowledge that the routine will be back the next day.