It is common for children to sleep with their parents when they are growing up. It is called “co-sleeping,” and it generally goes on for an extended period. For some, co-sleeping goes on for weeks, months, or years. Advocates of co-sleeping believe it is a great way for families to bond and spend time together. It is also a way to reduce a child’s anxiety and stress, especially if they wake up during the night. Co-sleeping is also very popular among breastfeeding moms.
Many parents who end up co-sleeping wonder how old is too old for their child to be sleeping in the bed with them. While there are many conveniences to co-sleeping, especially when your kids are very young, it can cause problems as your children age. When should children learn to sleep alone?
When children transition to the toddler age, the potential for SIDs decreases tremendously. This is right around the time that children love to jump in the bed with their parents. When your baby is around the one year mark, the risks of bed-sharing are very low, but it does set a precedent that can be hard to break, says Dr. Robert Hamilton, FAAP, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.
“My advice to parents is always to begin the evening with children in their own bed. If they wake up in the middle of the night, it’s best to comfort them, but try to keep them in their own beds. It’s not so much a concern for their safety as concern for the quality [rest],” says Hamilton.
Most parents will want their children to be in their own beds around 2 to 2 1/2 years old. One of the reasons this is a good time to age to get your child to sleep alone because it encourages independent sleep. As your child begins to mature, it is helpful for several reasons.
When a child co-sleeps, it can keep them from achieving “nighttime independence.” This is especially important for school-aged children. Many children experience fears of the bed, including fears of the dark. Psychologists generally use cognitive strategies – such as teaching kids coping statements and brave self-talk to address such worries, the American Psychology Association (APA) says.
Psychologists can also teach parents creative games to play before bed, like a flashlight treasure hunt, to help stop a child from having negative associations with a dark bedroom. Sarah Honaker, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Indiana University’s School of Medicine, promoted independent sleep by using cognitive strategies, applying a reward system, then gradually weaning the child from requiring her parents with her in bed. This can be particularly helpful for older kids.
Nighttime separation anxiety is very common, particularly for children up to 3 years old and older kids, Leonardo Rocker, Co-founder, and Director of the Quirky Kid reports. If your child is dealing with separation anxiety, there are several things he recommends you try with your child:
- Develop a regular daily routine: Having a routine that you follow is everything in a child’s life, particularly when assisting your child with sleep independence. “The same waking, nap time, and bedtimes will help your child feel secure, which can help them fall asleep more easily,” Rocker says, “Have a bedtime routine – for example, bath followed by storytime and a brief cuddle. Consistency and clear communication is key.”
- Keep lights dim: It is common for parents to keep the lights on, especially when your children are afraid of the dark. This can be a good thing; just be the light isn’t too bright. “Keep lights dim in the evening and expose your child’s room to light, preferably natural, as he wakes. These light patterns stimulate healthy sleep-wake cycles,” Rocker says.
- Avoid too many toys in the bed: It is common to leave toys in the bed, especially when we want our kids to work themselves to sleep. However, leaving too many toys in the bed can do more harm than good. “Avoid putting your child to sleep with too many toys in his bed, which can distract him from sleeping,” Rocker says. “One or two ‘transitional objects,’ like a favorite blanket or toy, however, can help a child get to sleep more easily.”
- Don’t use bedtime as a threat: If you have used bedtime as a threat, you aren’t alone. Kids mustn’t think that their bed is the place they go when they are bad. Try not to make your child’s bed the time-out place. “Model healthy sleep behavior for your child, and communicate that sleep is an enjoyable and healthy part of life,” Rocker says.
- Avoid sweets before bedtime: Any parent knows what sugar will do to a child. The last thing you want is your child going up the walls from a sugar rush right before they go to bed. It can make sleep extremely difficult. “Avoid stimulants like chocolate, sweet drinks, TV, and computer use before bedtime. Rocker says children ideally need to relax and “wind-down” for at least 1 hour before bedtime.
Ultimately, when it comes to co-sleeping, you should do what’s best for the family. Often, especially with older kids, it is less about the child's age and more about how comfortable everyone is with the arrangement. If you are married or in a relationship, sharing the bed with your children can be a tougher choice. The younger your child is, the easier it is to make the transition. If your child is over the age of three, consider spending some of your night on a mattress on the child’s floor until they fall asleep. Do this until they become comfortable sleeping on their own. It may take some time, but it will be well worth it for your child’s growth and your peace of mind.