Transitioning from Bedsharing to Independent Sleeping

Clues that tell you it's time, and how to get your bed back!
mother an baby sleeping in bed

I brought both of my babies into bed with me. I wasn’t misinformed – I was well aware of the safe sleep guidelines put forth by the Public Health Agency of Canada that say the safest way for a baby to sleep is on his back in the crib – but I also wasn’t reckless. I made a deliberate decision to take a carefully calculated risk. But the moment comes in most bedsharing lives when it feels like it's time to transition children out of the parent's bed and into their own. Here's how to make it happen.

A semi-conscious decision

For me, it was a matter of necessity, convenience and preference. As newborns, neither of my babies liked sleeping on their backs and slept much better on me. I was also breastfeeding and couldn’t imagine having to get up every couple of hours to transfer them back into their cribs. In my weary, confused, sleep-deprived state, it seemed way safer (and cozier) to keep them right where they were, snuggled up next to me.

This experience doesn’t necessarily reflect every mother’s. In fact, I’ve met dozens who can’t sleep a wink with their babies in bed for fear of rolling over on them and prefer to sleep separately for valid reasons. At the same time, having talked to dozens of other mothers, I know I’m far from alone.

Countless moms plan on putting their babies to sleep in beautifully adorned, government-approved cribs only to eventually bring them into bed. Often, it’s not a conscious choice, born out of a staunch belief in “the family bed,” but rather a semi-conscious choice, made in the middle of the night, sometime in between their babies’ sixth or seventh time waking.

The all-night, all-you-can-eat breastfeeding buffet

For a while, these mothers benefit greatly from this decision. They find that they not only get more sleep, but that they also feel more connected to their babies. Until one night the sleeping arrangement stops working for them. The baby starts waking up more often, has greater difficulty settling back to sleep, and the closeness that was once so enjoyable starts to lose its appeal.

Sometimes it’s the result of the baby sneaking snacks in between meals such that the mother begins to feel like that dreaded “all-you-can-eat-buffet.” Sometimes it’s the result of the baby getting too big or mobile, such that the queen-sized mattress, all of a sudden, seems dangerously small. Sometimes it’s the result of a partner simply wanting their bed back.

Should you kick the bedsharing habit?

Whatever the reason, it’s usually at this point in the sleep saga that I’m consulted. The stories of these mothers are remarkably similar – riddled with guilt, embarrassment, regret and fear that by bringing their babies into to bed with them, they not only put their children’s lives in danger but also created an insidious, irreversible habit akin to drug addiction.

But, of course, this is not the case. While it’s true that bedsharing, in a particular set of circumstances such as when alcohol has been consumed, increases the risk of SIDS occurring in children under the age of 12 months old, it can also be perfectly safe, and may even be protective when mothers are breastfeeding.

It’s also not the case that babies brought into bed can’t eventually kick the “habit” and learn how to sleep independently, in their own cribs, and in their own rooms. In fact, some babies eventually outgrow bedsharing on their own, without their mothers having to do a single thing and without them having to shed a single tear. Other babies (the vast majority of the ones I’ve worked with, including my own) require targeted assistance to help ease them out of their mothers’ beds

woman waking up feeling well rested
Ana Blazic Pavlovic/

Moving from bedsharing to independent sleeping

Feel ready to make the change

This means you shouldn’t try to move your baby out of your bed just because you think you should, or because other people think you should, but rather, because it’s no longer working for you, your baby and/or your family. If it’s still working (for example, you’re getting more sleep, your baby is getting more sleep, the sleeping arrangement is safe and everyone is happy), there’s no compelling reason to change it. Simply enjoy it while it lasts.

Consider baby’s age, size, and mobility

If your baby is still relatively small and young, (i.e. under six months) start by putting her to sleep in a bassinette or small pack-and-play beside your bed. Research suggests that co-sleeping (having your baby sleep on a separate surface in the same room as you) reduces the risk of SIDS because the proximity mothers have to their infants seems to help regulate their physiological systems.

If your baby is older than six months, too big for a bassinette, and/or is already starting to move around, it may be time to transfer her to a crib. This is not only the safest option for mobile babies, but also tends to result in better sleeping for both parties involved, once you’ve learned to adjust to the new arrangement.

Expect and understand objections

Now, I’m not going to sugar coat it. This process often involves tears. For most mothers, this transition is much harder on them than it is on their babies. This is because mothers have a tendency to worry that their little ones are going to feel abandoned or get lonely in their cribs all by themselves (I know because I was one of these mothers). However, it’s usually a pleasant surprise how quickly babies not only adapt to their new sleeping quarters but also come to love them.

Brace for the process

The most prevalent problem that arises during this transition period is known in the sleep literature as sleep-onset association disorder, or SOAD, a condition that surfaces when babies are only able to fall or get back to asleep under a particular set of circumstances. This is common in babies who bedshare because they grow accustomed to having their mothers soothe them to sleep through breastfeeding and/or their physical presence. However, this issue can typically be solved by gradually allowing babies to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own.

There is no one right way to guide babies through this process, but most former bedsharing mothers have chosen a graduated method, which allowed them to systematically check in on their babies in between leaving them alone for longer and longer periods of time. When babies are consistently given a sufficient amount of time to settle themselves to sleep, without the assistance or presence of their parents, they usually learn how to fall asleep on their own within a couple of days. That being said, there are some things you can do to make the process easier on both of you:

Ensure baby’s needs have been met

I do not endorse letting babies cry, even in the context of sleep-training, if they are sick, actively teething, hungry, cold, wet, etc. Neither should you. That’s why you’re going to make sure that when you are leaving your baby to fall asleep on her own, you have met all of her needs. You can always start again once any persistent condition passes.

Get support

If you can reasonably predict that your baby is going to cry as a part of adjusting to his new sleep arrangement, try to have company. If you don’t think you’re able to handle the crying that may be involved, and your partner is, have him/her transition the baby while you listen to music or go out for a walk. Or have a tag-team approach, where you go in to reassure your baby every other time that it’s necessary.

Pick a good time

This means don’t start right before going away for the weekend or the night before a big day at work. An ideal time is when you have a few days where you don’t have a lot going in your life that requires a full night’s rest and when your baby’s sleep arrangements are going to remain relatively stable for at least those days.

Know your facts

In my experience one of the biggest obstacles to a successful transition from the bed to the crib is that parents are misinformed. They believe letting their babies’ cry is going to traumatize them or that it will lead to an insecure attachment. The truth is that while allowing your baby to cry in the context of sleep training can be stressful, it’s not damaging to them, providing they’re developing well and all their needs have been met. (If you’re not sure, ask your family practitioner or pediatrician if they think your baby is healthy enough to sleep-train before you begin the process).

Let go of guilt

You did nothing wrong to create the situation you’re in. And you’re not a bad parent for having or wanting to do things differently now. You are simply adapting and adjusting to your baby’s ever-changing needs. That’s what responsive parenting is all about!

Yes, it’s easier said than done. The truth is this part of the bed-to-crib transition is almost never easy. I thought it was going to be no big deal with my second baby, having already gone through it with my first, but it was just as tough, if not harder (and I’m a professional sleep trainer!). This is because we mothers simply never get used to the sound of our babies’ crying, even when we rationally know that it truly is in the best interest of our kids to simply stand by and trust that they can do it, all by themselves, all on their own.

To learn more about the risk factors associated with bedsharing, when not to bedshare, as well as guidelines for safe sleeping with infants, visit The University of Notre Dame Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab

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