One of the most common questions people ask mums with little ones is if their cherubs sleep well. For sleep-deprived parents being woken throughout the night it’s a question that can have them running for the nearest baby health clinic or, like so many, co-sleeping as a means to an end – to get a better night’s kip. If, like us, you co-sleep and it’s no longer working, or your little one doesn’t know how to put themselves to sleep without you right next to them, you should read this…
For my husband and I our co-sleeping set up started when we went to the United Kingdom to visit family. Our son was 16 months old and he refused to sleep in a portable cot. Zip forward nearly a year and we still have our little man in our bed. This hadn’t been a problem until recently – he used to continue sleeping when my husband and I had got out of bed in the mornings, however he now senses when we’re no longer next to him and he wakes within 15 minutes of us getting up, no matter how many hours sleep he’s had – so he’s not getting enough kip. Couples who’ve been through childbirth together know that physically reconnecting with each other after having a baby is really important for a healthy, close relationship. I recently wrote about couples with little ones needing time out together in this post. It’s always possible to get creative when it comes to intimacy by finding other places besides the bedroom, but for us we also miss the closeness of good old-fashioned spooning when we fall asleep (not possible with a two-year-old in the middle!).
“Put him in his cot, close the door and let him cry it out. After a few nights he’ll get used to it,” was one suggestion. “Move his cot into your bedroom to make the transition easier,” was another. We were at a loss as to what to do, because we knew that it was our fault that our little man thought of our bed as his bed – we’d taught him that going to bed at nighttime meant sleeping with us. So I was relieved to find ‘The Sleep Lady‘ while searching for tips on how to peacefully break a co-sleeping habit.
The Sleep Lady is mum of two, Kim West. She’s been a family therapist for 20 years and is known as America’s ‘Gentle Sleep Coach’. Her approach to helping sleepless parents is gaining a following around the world and, besides the United States, she’s trained people to become a Gentle Sleep Coach in Canada, Turkey, Israel, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom. Kim’s book Good Night, Sleep Tight details ‘The Sleep Lady Shuffle’, a gentle and gradual method for teaching children to put themselves to sleep independently.
Kim and I chatted over Skype and I instantly felt comfortable with her. She explained that many parents who come to her for help wrongly assume that she’s against co-sleeping. “If a co-sleeping family is happy and everybody is doing well then I’m happy for them. I help families when it’s not working well for them and they have to make changes,” Kim said. I also trusted her advice because she prepared me for the inevitable – that ‘peaceful’ might not be the best way to describe the process in teaching our son to put himself to sleep independently. My husband and I were met with a persistent two-year-old who repeatedly told us “Don’t like it” and almost had the stamina to stay awake longer than we did, so she couldn’t have been more right.
You see, we had managed to get into the habit of reading to our son before he would fall asleep in between us on the couch. We then carried him to our bed once he was asleep. Terrible, I know! (although I did feel better when Kim said that she’d heard all sorts of bedtime routines, including an attachment to a portable DVD player). We hoped to achieve two things – more sleep for our son as he’d been averaging ten hours a day, not the 12-13 hours recommended for a two year old. We also wanted to create more time for my husband and I to catch up without our son awake (or asleep in between us) on the couch.
Kim gave us two options to try and achieve our goals:
1) Look for where our son’s natural bedtime window seemed to be, then move his bedtime ‘couch time’ routine to that time. If we noticed a lull in his activities, at around 7:30-8pm for example, we needed to stop everything and do ‘couch time’ right there and then.
2) Move his bedtime routine from the couch to the bedroom and start the process of teaching him to go to sleep independently from a wakeful state, either in our bed or in his cot. This option was based on The Sleep Lady Shuffle – which meant gradually positioning myself further and further away from him until he was able to fall asleep without needing me to be in the room. At our little man’s bedtime I was to sit next to him for the first three nights, either in the bed or on a chair next to the bed (as long as I didn’t lie down with him) and tell him that I was going to stay sitting where I was until he fell asleep (we got this far, but more on that in a minute). Then, once he was asleep, I could leave the room then come back to bed later in the evening when my husband and I were ready for bed.
The following three nights I was to do the same, but this time sit in a chair inside the bedroom at the bedroom door with the door closed (to prevent him from running into the living room). The next three nights the same, but standing at the bedroom door with the door open. The final three nights, again, the same, but with ‘job checks’, e.g. “Mummy’s going to clean the kitchen, but Mummy will be coming to bed later.” Kim explained that there was behavioural science research supporting the idea of three-night patterns – moving too slowly or too quickly will cause problems. Two to three days is good, because the child doesn’t get too attached to the new routine before you change it again.
So, what happened?
We decided on the second option – to start the process of teaching our son to go to sleep independently from a wakeful state in our bed. We decided on our bed, rather than his cot, as his five-month-old baby sister sleeps in a bassinet in our bedroom and we felt that it would be better to move them into their shared bedroom at the same time in a few months. After reading a couple of books I told our son that it was bedtime and that Mummy was going to stay sitting in the chair next to the bed until he fell asleep (ha-ha!). Kim had said that our little man would come up with every possible excuse under the sun to try and get me to lie down with him, but I wasn’t prepared for him persistently sitting up in the bed, rather than lying down, and telling me “Don’t like it.” This went on for over an hour until I became so tired that I ended up leaning back on my elbows on the bed. He did just what Kim had said he would do the second I gave him an opportunity to lie next to me – he scampered on over, laid down and fell asleep within five minutes.
We have since gone to the first option – moving ‘couch time’ to earlier in the evening and this is working well. We wind things down after dinner by turning off the TV and dimming the lights. Our little man usually plays in the background while we clean up after dinner and I put his baby sister to bed. We then tell him it’s time to brush his teeth and we all do this together. By this time it’s about 8pm and my husband and I take turns reading a couple of books on the couch with our son. We then let him fall asleep in between us on the couch but carry him into our bed as soon as he’s asleep, which has been within five minutes of us finishing reading to him. This means that Mum and Dad now have a couple of child-free hours together before we go to bed each night.
Our little man was most definitely going to bed too late as he now easily falls asleep around 8:30pm, rather than the previous 9:30-10pm (sometimes later). It’s become obvious to us that our little man is attached to ‘couch time’ for his bedtime routine and that he’d been waiting for Mum and Dad to initiate this routine each night. He certainly wasn’t telling us that he wanted to go to bed, but we now know that he was tired and could have easily fallen asleep if we’d moved his bedtime ‘couch time’ routine earlier. Now that he’s getting more sleep at night he wakes in a much better mood! Here we were thinking that we simply had a two year old who could survive on less sleep than most others his age.
This set up isn’t ideal, as we’d prefer our son to be able to go to sleep independently, but at least we’re achieving our two goals for the time being – our little man is getting more sleep and Mum and Dad are getting more time on our own. It’s a quick-fix solution for now, but we’ll get to The Sleep Lady Shuffle again and I’ll let you know how it goes. Every co-sleeping family’s situation is different, so the suggestions Kim gave us were individual to our family.
Here are some general points Kim shared that you might find useful:
• If co-sleeping is affecting you and your partner’s relationship in a negative way then you need to change it. The best gift that we can give our children is a great marriage. We can model this and it can set them up for happy marriages.
• If you want your child to learn how to put themselves to sleep independently, put them to bed before they get drowsy, otherwise they are not learning how to put themselves to sleep.
• Look for when your child’s natural bedtime window seems to be, because we all have one. You want to get that window right and move your child’s bedtime routine to that time. If you notice a lull in your child’s activities do their bedtime routine right then, for example start pulling the shades down and slow things right down.
• Even families who want to practice the family bed long term, until the child decides that they want to sleep in their own room, those children still have to learn to put themselves to sleep independently. This is what becomes the task for all families who are co-sleeping.
• Sleep debt is accumulative. Even for you and I, so if we’re supposed to get seven to eight hours sleep a night, but we get six all through the work week and try and make up for it on the weekend, then we need about six extra hours sleep on the weekend. This is also true for our children, and our children need even more sleep than we do because they’re growing and learning at an incredible rate.
• If you are co-sleeping because it’s your only way of being guaranteed a good night’s sleep you are not alone. A lot of parents don’t talk about it because they’re ashamed, even though they shouldn’t be, but they are. They’re out there in their thousands and thousands.
How about you, are you co-sleeping? How’s it going? Or maybe you used to co-sleep with your little ones and managed to make the transition? I’d love to hear your stories…