Are you ready to reclaim your bed as your own? Tired of waking up with a small foot in your face? Exhausted from middle of the night bed musical-beds or every-two-hour feedings? Maybe Valentine's Day has even inspired you to pursue a little romance and "adult time" in your life?
Whatever the reason, it's never too early, or too late, to stop bed-sharing. If it's not working for one of you, it's not working for any of you. You can't be the parent you want to be if your sleep is frequently interrupted. And most likely, your little one will feel a lot better once her sleep isn't so broken, too.
(If your family is bed-sharing and everyone loves it, there's no problem. Just be as safe as you can possibly be. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend bed-sharing under the age of one, due to the increased risk of SIDS.)
The most important thing to focus on is connection... during the day. Many families bed-share because they love feeling connected. But there are many ways to connect, ways that don't compromise sleep. Whenever you make a big change to your child's routine, you will want to focus on connection even more.
For working parents, before you greet your child after work, take a few minutes to breathe and center yourself. You might even want to have a snack so you aren't ravenous and can focus on your child. When you get to him, let your face light up at the sight of your child. Offer a big hug but don't insist on one. Spend the first few minutes at home together completely focused on your child. Set a timer on your phone so you won't be checking the time. Let your child pick your activity together.
Roughhousing (as unappealing as it sounds, I know!) is a fabulous way to reconnect. Children love it when they are bigger, stronger, and faster than their parents. Chase your child around the table, and let her win the race. Wrestle and let her pin you down. This physical contact and reversal in roles is hilarious to children, and all that laughter helps them empty their emotional backpacks. If they are too wound up to play and keep pushing limits, hold the boundary and let them cry. Crying also helps to empty the emotional backpack so that children can release all the big feelings they've been feeling all day while you were gone. Once they've released all those emotions, you will be much more able to enjoy your time together. Please don't feel guilty about enforcing a limit, even when you've been gone all day. Children test your limits because they need limits to feel safe in the big, scary world.
For parents who have been home, you may want to do something to mark the end of the day as well. Perhaps a quick walk around the block or a bath before dinner will do the trick.
I suggest that you do not try to cook anything complicated or open mail or make phone calls while you are spending the early evening with your child. Try to focus on them instead. By focusing on them now, you'll get a break a little bit later in the evening.
If you have an older child, you'll want to have a family meeting before making a big change like changing beds. Talk about it on the weekend, when everyone is well rested, and not at bedtime. Give your child time to adjust to the idea. Make a sticker chart and let him decorate it. Promise a small reward for staying in bed each night, and a bigger reward at the end of a few weeks of stickers earned. Let your child pick out special sheets or a new stuffy for his bed.
When the big day arrives, be prepared for big feelings. Plan on an early bedtime for your child. Spend plenty of time cuddling and reading together. Give her a warning before bedtime. When bedtime comes, stay strong. Do not lie down with her while she falls asleep as she needs to learn to sleep alone. Otherwise, she'll wake up during the night because she won't know how to put herself to sleep. You can sit next to her for a few minutes, if desired, but try to do so without continuous physical contact. On future nights, try to sit in a chair and each night move the chair a little closer to the door.
When your child leaves his room in search of your company, you need to be prepared with a strategy. Do you want to do "silent return," where you bring him back to his room without any response, as many times as it takes? This method works but it takes a lot of patience. You have to outlast your child. And you have to not react at all to the popping out of bed. Any reaction -- besides the silent return -- reinforces the behavior, even negative reactions.
Other parents prefer an extra-tall baby gate in the doorway, or a Door Monkey, a gadget that holds the door very slightly ajar, so that the child can't leave the room. Some families do a combination -- after two pop-ups, the baby gate or Door Monkey goes up. The important thing is to be absolutely consistent in your approach. Once you've set the expectation and the rule, you must stick to it. As soon as you make an exception, your child knows he can wear you out.
With preschoolers and older children, an OK To Wake clock can be very helpful. You can tell your child that when the light turns green, he can join you in bed for early-morning cuddles. If you are nursing, please don't nurse in bed, though, at least for the first few weeks of the change in beds. Nurse in a chair -- where everyone stays awake -- and then offer cuddles in bed afterwards.
Understand that this may be an unwelcome change for your child. Prepare yourself to be extra patient, and make space for her big emotions. Holding a boundary -- in this case, sleeping in her own bed -- while she cries does not mean you are making a mistake. If you are consistent, I promise she'll get over it. Younger children generally adjust more quickly than older ones but all will get used to it in the long run.
The end of the family bed does not mean the end of your strong connection. Many parents feel they are actually more able to connect with their children when everyone gets a break at night.
Of course, all these changes are easier said than done. I am confident any family can make these changes, but some parents appreciate coaching and emotional support through the transition. If you'd like some support, schedule a free chat and let's see if I can help.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.