Kids Sleeping in Own Beds: Your Questions Answered

Elizabeth Pantley answers viewer questions about kids and sleep.

ByABC News via logo
July 22, 2009, 5:57 PM

March 4, 2010— -- For many parents, every night is a struggle to get their kids to sleep in their own beds.

Experts call it co-sleeping -- when young children prefer to sleep in their parents' bed.

"GMA" special correspondent Cameron Mathison tackled the issue with his own family on Tuesday's show, and hundreds of viewers wrote in with questons for parenting guru Elizabeth Pantley, the author of "The No-Cry Sleep Solution."

Click here to read "Good Morning America's" full report.

Read below for Pantley's answers to some of the most common questions and click here to visit her Web site.:

The Napping Question: Vida from Longmont, Calif.:
My 4-year-old has *almost* given up napping. When he gets a nap, he's happy and well-behaved all evening, but then he doesn't settle down and get to sleep until 10 p.m. When he doesn't nap, he's cranky after dinner but goes down easily at 7:30. My question is, should I be encouraging him to nap or not at this point?

Pantley's Answer: Nearly every child can benefit from a daily nap, and your son is a perfect example of that! That long span from morning until bedtime puts stress on a child's biological and emotion systems. However, too long of a nap, or a nap that's too late in the day, can interfere with bedtime. Try ending his nap after an hour or so -- he'll get all the benefits without compromising bedtime. You can also try moving your son's nap an hour or two earlier in the day to allow a longer span to bedtime, or waking him up an hour earlier in the morning. In addition, make sure your little guy gets about 11 hours of night sleep.

Breaking the Co-Sleeping Habit: Bridgette from Canton, Mississippi:
My 6-year-old daughter sleeps on a mattress in our room. We tried to move the mattress last night and she ended up in the bed and I slept upstairs. We have tried everything. She is relentless. What to do?

Nicky from Hartland, Wisconsin:
My daughter is 8 years old and she does not like sleeping in her own bed. She tells me that she doesn't like to be alone at night. What can I do to get her to sleep in her own bed all night?

Pantley's Answer: Children are very much "creatures of habit." If your daughters have always happily slept in your rooms it's unlikely they'll quietly accept a change.

The good news is that at this age both girls can be partners in the process. Explain that you'd like your daughter to sleep in her own room and brainstorm how to make it work for her. Perhaps add an array of stuffed animals to cuddle with, a small nightlight, put a bedtime pet (like a turtle) on her nightstand, give her a CD player with a children's audio book or soft music for her to listen to at bedtime.

A chart where she can place a sticker for every independent night or a small prize after a week of sleeping on her own can also be motivating. Positive encouragement and compliments will also go a long way!

At 16 months my son started learning upwards of 4-5 new words a day. The last two weeks he has been sleeping horribly. He pushes his sleep at least an hour and a half past when he should be going down. Does the language explosion have anything to do with his resistance to sleep?

Pantley's Answer: It is possible that your son's developmental leap is affecting his sleep, since sleep needs often change along with major milestones. Typically, around this age, toddlers modify their sleep hours by switching from two daily naps to one, or by putting more sleep into their night hours and less into their nap hours.

Take a look at your son's sleep schedule. At this age a child typically can last 4 to 6 hours between sleep periods, and usually has 2-3 hours of naptime plus 11-12 hours of night sleep -- this is a good way to judge if his current schedule is working for him, or if he needs an adjustment.

Co-Sleeping By Choice: Nikkie from Hornell, New York:
I have a 3-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. Recently they were both sick and so I had them sleeping with me to monitor fevers, and now this is the only way they can get to bed. Because I am a single mom who works full time and is in graduate school I have been allowing them to sleep in my bed because it makes for an easier bed time so I can get my work done after they go down. Am I doing the wrong thing?

Pantley's Answer: If you allow your children to co-sleep with you because you enjoy that arrangement, that's great, don't change a thing. However, if you'd prefer to have your bed to yourself, there are many ways to encourage their independence.

Actually, you have the perfect solution in your grasp -- create a "sibling bed" and allow them to snooze together! I suggest a large mattress on the floor in one bedroom where they can share sleep, and use the other bedroom as a playroom. Create a new pre-bed routine that includes story time while they are lying quietly together. Once they are sleepy and settled you can retreat to your own room. Many siblings who share a bed grow up to enjoy a special friendship with a foundation of hours of quiet pre-sleep conversation.

'The Morning Snuggle': Beth from Burke, Virginia:
Elizabeth, I love your gentle ways of helping parents and children in all areas -- especially sleep. My question: Our 29-month-old sleeps in her bed for most of the night. We get together for a "morning snuggle" so we both get some extra Z's. Lately, however, she's been waking a couple times a night and won't go back to sleep without being in bed with me. Any suggestions on how to help her get back to sleep on her own and wait until morning for our snuggle?

Pantley's Answer: Thank you Beth! I believe that gentle, respectful ways are every bit as effective as tough cry-it-out methods, so why not pick the nice way! Your little one has figured out that it's much nicer to sleep with you than alone, and she knows she's welcome in your room -- so there she goes. It's hard for her to identify when it's "early morning" vs. "middle of the night."

You can try putting a "sign" on your bedroom door -- a bright yellow sunshine, perhaps, that tells her it's okay to join you. Also, do a practice run with her each night before bed -- demonstrate what she should do if the door says bedtime, and what she can do when the sunshine is showing. If she comes in at nighttime then gently walk her back to her own bed and tuck her in and let her know you'll see her in the morning.

Hi, my hubby and I have a 2-1/2-year-old son who we let sleep with us from 15 months to now. Now we have him trying to sleep in his own bed… without much success... he wakes up halfway through the night and cries... how do we do this? Do we just let him cry? Thanks so much... no one is sleeping well at our house.

Pantley's Answer: You've brought up a great point! If everyone is sleeping well, safe and happy, then there's no need to change what you're doing. But when no one is sleeping well, then --- it's time for a change!

I always vote against letting a child cry to sleep -- that can damage the trust between you, especially when you're changing a routine that's gone on for a long time. Since your child has spent most of his night sleep in your bed, he doesn't view his room as a place to spend the night.

It may help to redecorate and create an inviting sleep place. Allow your son to help choose new bedding (flannel sheets are especially nice), new curtains, wall decorations, or a new nightlight. Add a safe stuffed animal as a sleeping buddy. A fun addition to the "new" room is to string up blue Christmas lights, or glow-in-the-dark stars and planets on the ceiling. Playing sounds on a "white noise" machine (ocean waves or rainfall) can also be soothing. A more inviting room will make it a happier place to sleep.

Step-By-Step Weaning: Brooke from Lawrenceville, Georgia:
I have almost 22-month-old boy/girl twins. One is a great sleeper. The other child and I co-sleep in her room; she has never slept in her crib. How do I get her to sleep on her own? The crying-out method disturbs the other twin.

Pantley's Answer: Goes to show you -- children are unique when it comes to sleep, just like in every other area! Since your daughter has been sleeping with you since birth it's respectful to take the time to gently help her graduate to independent sleep.

Since the bed is in her room, I'd suggest a step-by-step weaning process. Begin by putting the bed snug against her crib -- put her in the crib and you can lie on the bed, close beside her, even putting an arm through the bars to soothe her. Once she is comfortable with this arrangement, move the bed just a foot away from the crib. Then, take the next step, by moving your bed to the other side of the room. Next, stay only until she falls asleep, and then move off to your own room. Finally, amend your bedtime routine to a peaceful tuck-in and a gentle parting.

Nighttime Visits: Sonya from Clinton, Washington State:
Our daughter will go to sleep in her own bed, but she stealthily comes into our bed sometime between 11pm and 2am every night. Any suggestions?

Pantley's Answer: This is no surprise, since almost half of babies and toddlers end up in their parents' bed at some point during the night. For any solution to work, though, the parents must decide that they really want to end the night visits. By allowing this to occur every night you actually give your approval to the process.

If you do want to stop nighttime visits, I suggest you do what I call the Rubber Band Bounce -- which means anytime your child gets out of her bed you gently, quietly and without emotion lead her right back to her own room. It helps to make the child's room inviting -- with stuffed animals, cozy sheets (such as fleece or flannel) soft music, or a bed-side pet like a goldfish. You can even create a sticker chart upon which she can place a star for each night she stays in bed, with a reward after gaining ten stickers -- perhaps a game night at home with you or a trip out for ice cream.

My 21-month-old gets up around five times every night and says "bed, bed" and will cry until we lay with her. Is this a phase? Is it bad parenting for us to lie down next to her whenever she wants?

Pantley's Answer: It's not a phase -- all human beings wake up five or more times every night, mainly when shifting from one stage of sleep to another. The issue is not for your daughter to sleep all night without waking up, but for you to decide HOW you want her to be able to fall back to sleep each time she does wake up.

Right now, she has a routine and you are a big part of that. If you and your wife are fine lying beside her each time, then continue as you are, that's no one's business but your own.

However, if you'd like for her to sleep all night without your assistance you'll need a new routine that doesn't involve your presence at each awakening. Check several of my other previous responses, since this has been a very common theme.

Addicted to Breast-Feeding? Katrin from Germany:
My one-year-old boy is addicted to breast-feeding for sleeping! As soon as I try to put him away, he realizes it. I really don't know what to do....

Pantley's Answer: This situation is extraordinarily common among breastfeeding children – since nursing is nature's natural sleep aid. Children easily fall asleep nursing, and become accustomed to this aid for sleep. You'll need to help your child learn that he can fall asleep without nursing.

When your child wakes up in the night and wants to nurse, go ahead and nurse him as you normally have. Remember that a toddler is most likely not waking because he is hungry, but because he wants comfort, and associates the act as his method to fall back to sleep. So, what you'll do, instead of letting him fall asleep at the breast, is to let him nurse for a few minutes until his sucking slows and he is relaxed and sleepy. Then rock him, pat him or give him a back rub. Help him settle to sleep without sucking so that he can create a new bedtime ritual. Over time, you can gradually become less helpful as your child learns on how fall asleep on his own.

Getting Your Sleep: Jennifer from Vancouver, Canada:
HELP!!! My 18-month-old son wakes every night between 10:30-11:30 p.m. and will only go back to sleep if I bring him to my bed. I am not against co-sleeping, but he pulls my hair in his sleep and tries to sleep on my head, which makes getting a good night's sleep for me very difficult.

Pantley's Answer: It's important for you to know that it's okay to move your child to his own bed for the sake of your good night's sleep. Your little one will love you just as much once he's an independent sleeper. And if you make a gentle, respectful transition this can be a nice milestone for him. A good solution might be to put a soft chair or mattress next to your son's crib. Instead of brining him to your bed when he wakes up, sit or lie beside him and put your hand on his tummy or leg. Add some soft music or "white noise" recordings of ocean waves or rainfall to create a soothing sleep environment. Be consistent and in no time your child will be happily sleeping on his own!

The Second Child: Vimala from Pleasanton, Calif.:
My son will be turning one this Sunday. He has co-slept with us since birth. I am pregnant with our second and would like to transition him to his crib before then so he does not associate his new sibling with being removed from our bed. How should I go about moving him in the gentlest way?

Pantley's Answer: The approaching birth of a sibling is a common reason that children are moved out of the family bed. It's a practical choice, and one that should be made sensitively, since bringing a new baby into the family creates plenty of emotions for a toddler. Ousting him to make room for the little newcomer may add stress, so doing it gradually and thoughtfully is a good thing: all family-bed children eventually move on to independent sleep, and it's perfectly acceptable for you to choose the time for this to happen.

To make this easier on your son, try to make the change two months or more before the newborn arrives. During the transition, and once the new baby arrives, be sure to offer your child plenty of daytime cuddles. Often, co-sleeping children get used to lots of human contact and they may subconsciously miss it when they begin to sleep alone. You can offset this by making sure to fill your child's need for touch during the day, especially before bed (don't rush the bedtime routine!) and when he first wakes up in the morning.

A best bet for a new bed for a newly independent sleeper is a mattress on the floor. It's nice and safe (no fear of falls). You can even add soft bolster-type guard rails to make it into a nice nest. Create a new bedtime routine that includes story time, soft music and a massage. If you are relaxed about the change you can help your child accept his new sleeping place.