My 3 yr old has never slept in his own bed, how can I ease him into sleeping in his own bed?

by Kate
(Mentone, Victoria, Australia)

Question: My 3 year old son has never fallen asleep by himself in his own bed nor slept in his own bed for the entire night. It has now reached a point that it is normal and a habit for me to lay down with him in my bed, cuddle him and sing to him until he falls asleep and then let him sleep with me for the whole night. I am a single mum so I haven't found this to be a problem at all. It is a problem now because I am aware that at his age it is not normal or beneficial for him to have never gone to sleep without my aid and stay asleep without me beside him. I want to ease him into sleeping in his own bed and to self soothe Since he has used me as his comforter for his whole life, I'm not sure how to do this. I would definately like advice how to ease him into this with minimal impact on him. I do not want him to feel that i don't care about him anymore and don't believe in controlled crying. Please help!

Heidi's Answer: Dear Kate,

It is clear that you have a wonderful relationship with your son. The fact that you have been comforting him to sleep as you have, has given you both the opportunity to build a very strong bond.

Your wish to wean from this co-sleeping now, in a gentle way, is all normal and will not give him the feeling you don't care about him.

On the contrary, if you do it in a loving and determined way, you will show him that you have confidence in him. It will increase his self-confidence too and the two of yo will enter new dynamics.

The keywords to go about it will be 'gradually' and 'appraisal'.

To go from co-sleeping to self soothing in his own bed gradually, go in steps giving each step time your son to get used to.

I will suggest an 'order' of steps, but do adjust the scenario to fit what practically works for you: what counts is that you increase his sleep independence little by little.

So as a first , tiny step you can simply lie a bit further away from him than you do now. You still comfort him to sleep but after that 'keep your distance'. He gets “his” side of the bed.

As a next step, can you place a small mattress on the floor next to your bed? Or a (toddler) bed right next to yours? You then still help him with settling to sleep, but he is in his own bed, you in yours (for example you place your hand on his tummy, while you still sing).

This helps him become used to having his own space (which is an attractive one, see below).

Take ample time for him to get used to this.

Then you can start gradually reducing the time you keep touching him, for example place your hand next to his body on his mattress after a while, while you still sing, ... and so on.

Keep on taking steps like this until he can go down, you sing the song and stay with him but you no longer need to hold/touch him.

Again give the situation ample time to set.

The next goal will then be that you can leave the room while he is still awake. If you manage to go through stages of deeply asleep, less deeply asleep, half asleep, ... drowsy and so on then that is good.

If he's just simply awake whenever you would leave, no matter what, use the “I'll be back” technique. You tell him that he stays quietly in bed, you will go out of the room just for a little while. You want him to be quiet and get ready to sleep, and you will be back in a minute to check on him.

Go out, wait a bit and then go back in - “ridiculously" soon the first time(s). This will help build his confidence. Go by feel from there to see how long you can stay away but do go in early enough to keep him from getting upset.

If he does cry when you go out, tell him you want him to be nice and quiet, he's a good boy and that if he can just quietly wait for you, you will come back soon, ...

You may find him half asleep one time when you go in, then stay there quietly or touch him gently, ... so he can peacefully sleep on. You may feel that you can go out before he's deeply asleep, come back after a couple of minutes and find him asleep ...

If all this starts working and he eventually self soothes you can start preparing his bed in how own room ... and then help him sleep there gradually too.

As I said, the above is an example scenario, what counts is that you take steps to increase the distance between you and his soothing independence.

To back up this method:

Discuss it with him several days before you start. I don't mean discuss the details of the whole scenario, but start telling him that he is a big boy now and that big boys get their very own bed to sleep in. They still like their mommy near but they can also sleep in their own bed, even sleep better, ...

If he hasn't one already, give him a cuddly animal or another soft toy that you know he likes. It can also be a small blanket, a scarf of yours (with your scent on it, can be very helpful!, of course knotted to avoid it getting around his neck), ... anything he likes and can comfort him ... maybe go and choose one in the store together ...

Whether he transitions through his own mattress, his own bed, ... (or even “his” half of the bed at first?) make that attractive for him. Get him a nice blanket or duvet cover, some nice decorations or pictures next to him, ... (these little things can then also progressively move with him as he goes through the different stages.

Praise him enthusiastically whenever he does his best, has taken a good step, ... any tiny good thing: tell him you are proud of him, he's doing so well, ... you know. If it's not going well, no need to get cross, just tell him clearly and consistently what you expect.
A sticker chart can be really powerful, so add that to the mix. You can download free printable reward charts here.

Be determined. Think things through for yourself beforehand. Writing it down can help. If you hesitate, he will feel that and be unsure. If he feels you know what you are doing, are convinced you do the right thing, he will feel that too. He will feel trusted and his confidence will increase.

Combine all this with a progressive scenario as in my example and with patience, you will be able to help your son sleep independently.

Best of luck, I would love to hear how it goes!

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