Ready to stop co-sleeping? How to gently transition your child to their own bed without tears

Baby sleeping in a white cot. The baby is lying on his back and has a blanket tucked round him.

A significant proportion of my clients (probably around 70%) want help to stop co-sleeping. 

But how do you do it gently and responsively? 

In this guide, I’ll talk you through the steps you need to take. I always recommend that you do this at your child’s pace. In other words, take your time, make small changes that they can cope with, giving your baby (or toddler/older child) lots of support along the way. 

Do you really need to stop co-sleeping?

Woman lying on her bed, on her side. Her baby is lying next to her on the bed. Image shows safe co-sleeping positioning

Co-sleeping is, for many parents, the choice that results in more sleep for everyone. Before you implement the steps below, it’s worth asking yourself the following questions:

1. Do I enjoy co-sleeping? 

2. Do I get more sleep when I co-sleep with my baby/toddler?

3. Does my child sleep better when they are in bed with me?

4. Do I feel like I have to stop co-sleeping just because I feel pressure from others?

5. Can I co-sleep safely? 

If your answer is “yes” to the previous 5 questions, then I’d like to reassure you that co-sleeping is a valid parenting choice! If it’s working for you, please don’t feel like you HAVE to stop co-sleeping. It might be worth reading my blog on safe co-sleeping just to be sure that your sleep environment is as safe as possible, and to reassure you of the benefits. And then carry on co-sleeping until it no longer works for you! 

Meet the need for connection and closeness

A baby stands in his cot. He is smiling

Bedtime is a time of separation

During the day, we are usually keep our babies and toddlers within sight at all times. If we can’t do that (say for example, when we go to work), then we get someone else to keep an eye on them, right? We think it’s normal and expected to interact with our babies/toddlers during the day, and to meet their needs promptly. 

Why do we feel like this changes at bedtime? We expect them to sleep, alone, at a distance from us or in another room. However, the need that babies have for closeness with us doesn’t disappear just because it’s night time. There is a deep, biological, neurological need for closeness and connection that lasts well into childhood. This means that if we want to move away from co-sleeping we have to provide some sense of connection and closeness for our children. If we can do that, then they will feel safe and secure in their own sleep space and accept it more readily. 

You can’t force independence

A lot of sleep training and parenting books get it the wrong way around. They think that by rationing your attention or physical presence with your child, you can make your child more independent. The opposite is true – the more your child feels connected to you, the more calm and relaxed they will be. Dr Gordon Neufeld talks about “resting in our presence” – when our children feel like they don’t have to fight for our attention and presence, then they are much calmer, more confident and, ironically, will become more independent, because they know that we are always waiting for them and will willingly give them that connection that they need. 

Fill their love tank 

Meeting that need for connection during the day is important. If you’ve been separated from your child during the day, then a good bedtime routine will help to fill their “love tank”*, so that when they fall asleep at night, that need for connection is fully met. This will often result in them falling asleep independently much more easily. At least at the start of the night!  

What happens as the night goes on? Well, if you child is sleeping away from you, then that level in the love tank falls. Initially, you may need to revert to co-sleep for part of the night until your child adjusts to being in their own space for the whole night. How fast it falls will depend on:

  • their age – the younger they are, the quicker it will fall;
  • their temperament – sensitive, intense children often need much more support and physical contact with their parents;
  • how connected they feel to you generally – if they have a secure attachment then then they may tolerate sleeping apart from you at night time.   
*Filling a child’s love tank is a concept that Lyndsey Hookway talks about.

Get them used to their new sleep space during the day

A baby stands in his cot. He is smiling

If your child has been co-sleeping with you, the first thing that you need to do is get them used to where they will be sleeping. For babies and young toddlers, this might be spending 10-15 minutes in their cot with some toys, during the day. You can tidy the room, or put clothes away while they play. Always lift them out as soon as they start fussing. You want them to have pleasant associations of being in the cot. You can also carry them around the room and talk to them about what they can see – pictures on the wall, toys etc. 

For an older child, you may want to spend some time reading books, or snuggling together on their new bed. This is a tricky one to navigate because you want them to associate their new bed with going to sleep, not playing! If they are old enough, you can involve them in picking out new bedding or decorating the room. 

Don’t forget that need for connection

You may want to:

  • sleep on their cot sheet for a few nights before you start the transition so there is a familiar scent for them, or
  • tuck a t-shirt you’ve been wearing over the mattress
  • put photos of yourself near their cot – for this to work you’ll also need to use a night light so they can see the photos!
  • play lullabies overnight that they are familiar with, that you sing to them during their bedtime routine. 
With older children, there are lots of ideas that you can use to bridge that connection gap overnight. I love this infographic by Dr Deborah MacNamarra.

How do you get them into the cot?

Drowsy but awake

Why is this the default suggestion in most sleep books? It only works for a small number of children! Most wake up and get upset that they’ve been disturbed just as they are falling asleep! But if it works for you, then the idea is that you would wait until they are almost asleep, then transfer them and then soothe and settle them until they are fully asleep. 

Transfer when asleep

This may be your best option if you have a baby or young toddler, or if you are breastfeeding and don’t want to stop feeding to sleep. Feed, cuddle them to sleep and then transfer them to the cot when they are asleep. You may need to experiment with the best time to do this. Most babies will have a period of light sleep at the start of a sleep cycle, when they can still wake easily. If this is your baby, you may have to wait for 20 minutes before transferring to the cot. 

A lot of babies do not like being put down onto their back, as it triggers their vestibular system into thinking they’re falling! If this is your baby, then experiment with sitting them in the cot first, then lying them on their side, and then rolling them onto their back. If you hold their arms across their body at the same time, it can help inhibit that startle reflex. 

Work on them falling asleep in the cot

This option will work best for older toddlers and children, or if you aren’t breastfeeding to sleep. Some babies do seem to get a bit confused if they wake up somewhere different from where they fell asleep. They may often wake up crying. For these children, it may actually be better to help them to fall asleep in their cot/bed rather than to be transferred once they are asleep. If they wake up overnight, then they are in the same place. Hopefully, if they remembered falling asleep there, it will be easier for them to fall asleep again without needing your help! 

Use a floor bed

A floor bed can be a great transition away from co-sleeping. There are a couple of ways you can do this. Child proof their room – essentially you need to remove everything from their room! Then put a mattress on the floor and get them to fall asleep there. You can then ninja roll away, and leave them asleep on their own. They can sleep safely and happily on a firm adult mattress in the middle of the floor. 

Alternatively, you can put their cot mattress on the floor next to a mattress that you can sleep on. This gets them used to sleeping on their cot mattress, and then when you are ready, you can transfer the cot mattress back into the cot, and work on them falling asleep on their own. (See below)

A toddler is sleeping in a cot on his side. He wears blue pajamas

Start at the easiest time

Start at bedtime 

Bedtime is usually the easiest time to make a change. They have just had a lovely relaxing bedtime routine where they’ve had a chance to reconnect with you, so their love tank is full. You also have sleep biology working in your favour, as you have both sleep pressure and their circadian rhythm working together to help them fall asleep. If sleep hasn’t been happening easily, even with co-sleeping, then go back a step and work on bedtime: Bedtime battles: how to have a calm, easy bedtime (rebeccascottpillai.co.uk)

Offer MORE support than usual

If you are getting them to fall asleep in their cot, I’d lie on the floor next to their cot, and support them through the cot bars. By lying down, they are more likely to lie down to get closer to you. If you sit or stand next to the cot, mobile children will stand up to reach up to you! You may want to introduce some patting, shushing, lots of verbal support to help your child get used to their new sleep space. 

If they are getting upset, it’s always, ALWAYS ok to lift your child and give them a cuddle. If they are getting really upset, rather than just taking them back to your bed and co-sleeping straight away, consider taking them out of the room, calming them down, and then decide whether you want to try again at getting them to fall asleep in their cot, or whether you need to take it back a step, and go a bit slower.  

Getting them used to falling asleep in their own space can take around 3-5 days for an “average” child. For a very persistent or sensitive child, it may take around a week, especially if you want to do it very gently with no tears. 

What next?

Often, when you make a change just at bedtime, then you will see an improvement the rest of the night. So, if you want to, you can just make a change at bedtime initially. This will hopefully give you a few hours of not having a baby kicking you in the spleen or starfishing you to the edge of the bed. You may then wish to co-sleep for the rest of the night and let them adjust at their own pace to sleeping independently. Alternatively, if they are in their own room, then you may find that just sleeping in their room with them (but them still in the cot) keeps them happy. 

If you do need to make changes to the rest of the night then I’d suggest this method: 

  • Get them used to falling asleep in their sleep space at bedtime. When this is happening easily, work on the next wake up. 
  • You give them lots of support at their next wake up. Repeat the steps I mentioned above, including taking them out of the room and calming them down, if necessary. Again this will take somewhere between 3-7 nights. 
  • Co-sleep the rest of the night. 
  • Keep repeating these steps, so that your child gradually spends longer and longer in their own sleep space. 

What about naps?

If you need your child to have independent naps, then the same process will work! You can, if you wish, work on bedtime first. However, if you are ok co-sleeping at night time and need them to have independent naps, then you can just work on the naps. 

  • Get them used to their new sleep space.
  • Have a short nap routine that calms them and gives them some connection with you. 
  • Work on the first nap of the day. This is usually the easiest nap for them to fall asleep, so it makes sense to start here. Plus, if it all goes pear shaped, you can “catch up” with the rest of the naps. So if it takes longer than normal for them to fall asleep, or they have a shorter nap than usual, you can adjust your subsequent naps accordingly. 
  • When your child is falling asleep easily in their own sleep space for that first nap of the day, it’s time to move on to the next nap! 

Need more support to stop co-sleeping?

I have worked with hundreds of families, and a common goal is to stop co-sleeping! So if you’d like some personalised support, you can book a FREE 15 minute call to talk about your family’s needs: 

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