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How to Move Away From Co-Sleeping with Your Baby or Toddler

If you are currently co-sleeping in the same bed as your baby the chances are that you didn't set out to do this, and this was borne out of sheer necessity in order to get the smallest amount of sleep. But even if that was the case, it can become something that's comforting for you and your baby. Even so, there will come a time when you might want to move away from co-sleeping. This article will help you to work out what the reasons are for moving away from co-sleeping, when is the right time to do it, how you choose the right approach, and how you find a strategy to do it.

mother and baby sharing a bed

NOTE: This article specifically focuses on children or babies who sleep next to their parents but on the same sleep surface. If your child will not fall asleep on their back, and instead need to be held upright on your chest, you can use the advice in this article, but you should also first look at why your child won't sleep on their back. This article has some advice.

What's in this article:

What's the difference between co-sleeping and bed-sharing?

Co-sleeping can actually refer to two things: firstly, it can refer to sleeping in the same room as your baby. This is also referred to as 'room sharing' and safe sleep guidance suggests you should room share with your baby both for for overnight sleep and naps until they are at least 6 months old. However, many people use the term 'co-sleeping' to refer to sharing the same sleep surface with their baby - either by bringing their child into the parental bed, or by sharing a floor bed in a child's room. In this article, when I refer to 'co-sleeping' and 'bed-sharing' I do so interchangeably and, as such, I am referring to the practice of sharing a bed with a child. If you want to learn when and how to transition your baby to their own nursery after a period of room-sharing, then you can read detailed advice about this here.

Why do people bed share with their baby?

Most people don't intend to bed share with their child, but according to data from The Lullaby Trust, 9 in 10 parents have shared a bed with their baby at some point. This can be for the entire night, for part of the night, just during the early hours of the morning, or for a nap. So even if you don't intend to bed share, you should set up a safe co-sleeping space, just in case.

Most families co-sleep out of sheer necessity when they find their baby will spring awake the second they place them into their cot. Or, they find their baby will sleep for very short stretches in a cot, but will sleep much longer in the bed with their parents. If this works for you, and you're following the safer bed sharing advice from The Lullaby Trust then you can either continue to do this until it no longer works for you, or you can take a slow approach to transition away from co-sleeping.

When should you move away from co-sleeping with your baby?

There is no set time to stop, provided you're following safe sleep guidance association with bed sharing. The risks associated with bed sharing:

  • Your baby could fall from the bed

  • Your baby could become entrapped between the wall and the mattress

  • Adult mattresses are not always firm, and if a baby was to lie face down on a mattress that was soft there is a risk of an issue known as 'rebreathing' which is where a baby breathes in their own exhaled air which is higher in C02 which restricts oxygen

  • Blankets and pillows could cause suffocation, overheating or rebreathing

  • A parent, pet or child could roll over onto your baby

All of the above risks can be mitigated by following The Lullaby Trust guidance. But there are instances where you should never share a bed with a baby (source):

  • Either you or your partner smokes (even if you do not smoke in the bedroom)

  • Either you or your partner has drunk any alcohol or taken drugs (including any medication that may make you drowsy)

  • Your baby was born premature (born before 37 weeks)

  • Your baby was born a low weight (less than 2.5 kg or 5 ½ lbs)

  • Never sleep on a sofa or armchair with your baby, this can increase the risk of SIDS by 50 times

  • You should never sleep together with your baby if any of the above points apply to you or your partner

If any of the above apply, you should transition away from bed sharing as soon as you can.

Aside from this, it's really up to you. But remember that under 6 months of age, your baby is safest sleeping in the same room as you for all periods of sleep.

Reasons why you may want to stop bed sharing

  1. It's not working the way it used to

  • Maybe you started bed sharing because it meant you slept more, but now you seem to be getting less sleep. Your child may be taking longer and longer to settle or wants to settle to sleep in a different way (e.g. rocking) before bed sharing with you and that's unsustainable. Or, perhaps you are getting less sleep because your little one is a real bed hogger and they are taking up the whole bed, or you’re getting kicked and slapped in the face as they flail around.

  1. Your child is showing signs they need more space

  • Eventually all children will show signs that they want more independent sleep without you doing anything about it. The timing of this will vary depending on your child's temperament. If your child is rolling or arching away from you to go to sleep, or if they are verbally telling you they want to sleep in ‘their bed’, this is a sign they are ready to start working on this.

  1. You just want to!

  • You are done with bed sharing for SO many reasons, and those reasons are all valid - you might be tired of being tee total for the sake of safe sleep, you may want to have your partner back in your bed, you want more space, or...just...because...they are all valid reasons.

When shouldn't you transition away from co-sleeping?

There are better times than others to make changes to the way a child or baby sleeps. If your child is ill or suffering from teething pain, you really shouldn’t choose to make changes then. If your child seems to be going through an intense period of separation anxiety, you may also want to wait until that is over. Likewise, if they have just started nursery or if you know you’re going travelling very soon.

Also, it's worth saying that if your only reason for wanting to transition away from co-sleeping is because of pressure from friends or family, this isn't the right reason. You should make the transition when you feel ready and confident. Remember, our children co-regulate their emotions with us, so if you're anxious and unsure, they will be anxious and unsure.

What is your goal when transitioning away from co-sleeping?

When it comes to transitioning away from bed sharing, it really helps to set some goals. Your goals can focus around these 4 areas:

  1. How long you want the transition to take - do you have a deadline in mind, for example

  2. What the ideal sleep set-up looks like - for example, do you want your baby to sleep in their own room, alone in their own cot, or do you intend to still share a room?

  3. How much crying are you comfortable with? When you make changes to the way your baby sleeps, this is likely to cause upset, and how upset they get will depend on their temperament, the method you use and how fast you take things. Remember, the quicker you want to go, the more chance your child will become upset and that can be significant for some.

  4. Which of the above 3 points you are willing to compromise on? For example, If you want to transition your baby to their own room in a cot in two weeks, and you want little to no crying, you will find the first two are achievable, but not without crying. So you need to compromise. Do you compromise on time, set-up or crying?

How do you choose a method or approach to transition away from co-sleeping?

Sleep training doesn't just refer to non-responsive methods such as 'crying it out'. There are a spectrum of options and they fall into three categories:

  • No parental intervention

    • This refers mainly to full cry-it-out or 'extinction' where you would simply place your child in their cot, give them a kiss goodnight and leave them room and not return until morning, regardless of whether they become upset. But to some it can also refer to adaptations of controlled-crying or The Ferber Method. This is where you will leave your baby and if they become upset you will return at timed intervals to 'check' on them. The idea of the check-ins is not to comfort your baby and stop them from crying, but is instead to reassure them that you haven't left. You can read a detailed article about this method here.

  • Some parental intervention

    • This is where a parent may be present in the room offering limited comfort. An example of this is The Chair Method. This is where a parent would sit by the cot offering limited physical and verbal support until their child falls asleep and then every night they move further and further away from the cot. These methods can be a nice compromise for an easy going child who would struggle to fall asleep alone. But for a child who has been bed-sharing for a long time, this may be a real upheaval if you're trying the process straight in a cot. I have a baby sleep course which includes two in-room methods that allow you to provide much more physical comfort, which is then scaled back over time, and these methods can work well with bed-sharing as you can begin in the bed itself, or in a floor bed by comforting your child to sleep in their sleep space, and then reducing that comfort over time and adding distance between you and your child over time.

    • But the reason these methods aren't 'complete parental intervention' is because, although you are offering comfort to your baby, you are being restrictive with the type of comfort you are offering.

  • Complete parental intervention

    • This is what many sleep consultants wouldn't refer to as 'sleep training', but in my view, this requires a lot of patience, consistency and a strategy as you slowly make adaptations to how your baby sleeps. In this example, you would make very small, incremental changes to the way your baby falls asleep and where they fall asleep by layering in new sleep associations and by increasing distance between you. If they get upset, you can return to what works to fully calm them and make very small changes every few nights. It can take a very long time, and it often helps if you are using a floor bed. These methods can take a lot of time and support, so my baby sleep course also walks you through exactly how to do this by using a method called 'Comfort Fading'.

Should you use a comforter?

It can really help to provide your child with a transitional object such as a comforter, teddy or muslin as you make the transition to independent sleep. It can help to make sure the object smells familiar and smells of you. If you want to know much about how to introduce a comforter to your baby, and when it's safe to do so then you can read this article here.

How to introduce a new sleep space to your child

If you're moving your child to a new room or a new bed, you want your child to feel comfortable in their new sleep space. Help them build a positive association with their new sleep space and away from sleep time. Create lots of opportunities during the day for quiet playtime in their sleep space with you present.

If you want to transition your child to a different room from the one they’ve been sleeping in, make sure they have plenty of opportunity in the daytime to play in there. Particularly, try to get your child comfortable with the lights dimmed in the room - try reading stories with a light projector on the ceiling, for example.

Do you need to night wean first?

Not necessarily, because many babies can still feed overnight until they are well beyond 12 months of age, particularly if they are breast fed, as breastfeeding provides far more than nutrition, it is very much a source of comfort. But if your baby is still waking multiple times a night for a feed, you may want to consider an approach to reduce the number of feeds before moving your child to another room. Or you could choose to transition them to a separate sleep space, but keep them in the same room as you. But if your child is only waking once or twice a night for a feed, it can be perfectly manageable to still feed this many times even with your child in a different room.

Do you need to go all-in with the transition away from co-sleeping?

Absolutely not. If you have a deadline in mind and you need your child sleeping in their own room for the entire night then it can help to go all in to speed up the process, but be aware this can involve some significant distress in the short term. But if you're happy to take a longer approach, you can always focus solely on bedtime and get your child falling asleep in their new sleep space from the start of the night, and if they wake later in the night you can bring them back into bed. Then, over time, you can increase the time they remain in their own sleep space.

How to make the transition step-by-step

Step One: Get your child used to their sleep space in the day

Decide where your child will sleep, or where you'll begin the transition. If you want to go straight to a cot or bed in another room then make sure your child builds positive associations with that space in the day and try to have time in the room where the lights are dimmed - reading books in the dark with just a dim light, for example, or looking up at a night light projector on the ceiling.

Step Two: Choose an approach

This is where you are going to choose a sleep 'training' method to teach your child to fall asleep in their own sleep space. 'Sleep training' can feel like a divisive term, but as I mentioned above, sleep training doesn't just include cry-it-out methods or controlled crying methods, there are methods where you can remain in the room offering support that is limited, or you can remain in the room and offer full support and make very small incremental changes. But you could use something like controlled-crying too.

You need to choose a method that meets your goals and fits with your values as a family and honours your child's temperament. Further above in this article I have mentioned a few options.

Step Three: Begin the transition at bedtime only

Make sure you begin on a day when you know your Little One has had a reasonably good day of naps so they aren't overtired, and try the process at bedtime rather than for a nap, because naps are a lot harder to settle a child to sleep for than bedtime. You can make a decision yourself about whether you want your child to remain in their new bed all night, or you can choose just to focus on bedtime only to begin with, and when they wake later in the night you could bring them back into your bed. Then, when you feel bedtime is in a more consistent place, you can work to extend the first stretch of sleep.

You may wonder if it will send mixed messages to your child if you're not consistent throughout the night, but this isn't the case. It certainly can be quicker to persist throughout the night, and in that case I would block out at least 3 nights to be totally consistent about resettling your child in their new bed. But that approach can, at least in the short term, involve a lot of crying. It's something you need to be in the mindset to be consistent with.

Taking a slower approach will, by nature, take longer, but this is a really big change for your child - particularly if they have co-slept for a very long time for the entire night.

Step Four: Get them falling asleep from wide awake in their own sleep space

This is important if you're transitioning to a new sleep space. If you feed or rock your child to sleep in your arms and wait to transfer them when they are in a deep sleep, they are likely to wake between sleep cycles out of confusion, and need more support to fall back to sleep. If they are able to fall asleep in their own bed, aware of where they are, when they wake between sleep cycles they are less likely to to be confused and won't need as much support to get back to sleep.

Do you need more support?

Making the transition from co-sleeping can be daunting and often it's hard to know where to begin. If your child is also waking frequently in the night, you may not have the head space to do it without support.

I am experienced in helping families to make this transition in a way that takes into account your individual circumstances and your child's temperament. My self-paced online baby sleep course teaches three methods that are compatible with the transition away from co-sleeping.

If you would like more support, then get in touch to book a free no-obligation intro call to discuss which option might work best for you.

The Essential Gentle Baby Sleep Course


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