Toddlers are confounding creatures. In the daylight hours, they’re busy bees — unstoppable in their pursuit to discover, play, and assert their independence. But the sassy attitudes and incessant need for activity succumb to sweet sleepy snuggles and heavy-eyed affection once bedtime rolls around.
Given the option, a tired tot would sleep next to their parents every night. And who could resist those tiny warm bodies?
Co-sleeping is when parents share a bed with their child for all or part of the night. It’s not for every family, but those who choose to snooze with a toddler tucked into an arm nook know that you take the soft snores with the accidental elbow jabs.
Co-sleeping has its fair share of positives and negatives, as well as potential risks, so it’s not a decision to be taken lightly — and hopefully one you’re not forced to make at 3 a.m.
Thinking about embracing the concept of a family bed? Here is everything you need to know about co-sleeping with a toddler.
Beginning at the age of 1, co-sleeping is generally considered safe. In fact, the older a child gets, the less risky it becomes, as they are more readily able to move, roll over, and free themselves from restraint.
Co-sleeping with an infant under 12 months of age, on the other hand, is potentially dangerous. Babies may not be able to extract themselves from heavy bedding or adult bodies, thus increasing the risk of entrapment, suffocation, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) takes a strong stance against co-sleeping with children under age 1. The AAP does recommend room sharing for the first 6 months of a child’s life, though, as this safe practice can greatly reduce the risk of SIDS.
Regardless of age, there are certain situations when co-sleeping is ill advised and dangerous. A parent should avoid co-sleeping with a child if they have been drinking alcohol or taking drugs that can hamper their ability to stir.
There is limited research examining the long-term effects of co-sleeping with toddlers. A
However, once socioeconomic variables were removed, researchers determined that it was life circumstance rather than co-sleeping that created these social and cognitive consequences.
While lack of separate bedrooms may be one obvious cause for co-sleeping, there are several other reasons families may choose to share a bed.
Some families have a desire for closeness, while others are driven by pure convenience. Many parents find themselves struggling with bedtime challenges, and resort to co-sleeping to save their sanity.
Co-sleeping is a hinderance to some and a rewarding option for others. You have to find what works for you — whether that means sleeping in a giant bed all together, having one parent co-sleep with a toddler, or sticking to separate beds and respective rooms.
Co-sleeping might not be viewed as the norm in the United States, but elsewhere in the world it’s a common and encouraged practice. Many cultures value the practicality and physical togetherness of sharing a bed.
When you stop to think about it, sleeping next to a loved one feels completely natural and innate for most human beings. It’s not something we need to do in solitude or privacy, and young kids may long for the comfort of a parent’s arms throughout the long hours of the night.
There are other benefits to co-sleeping, too:
Reality check: The days are long, but the years are short, and these sweet snuggles are fleeting. As kids get older, they’ll claim their independence and want more physical space. Co-sleeping while children are in the toddler stage enables you to make the most of this time.
Additionally, parents who have unusual work schedules and are unable to be present at all hours may choose to co-sleep to have more precious time with their growing children.
Either way, co-sleeping can help you bond on a deeper level, and give your child a sense of safety and security. Plus, you get to see their chest rise and fall and watch their eyelids flutter.
Co-sleeping can help nursing parents more readily feed their babies in the middle of the night or wee hours of the morning. In close proximity, you’re able to keep this activity hushed and peaceful — fostering a sense of restful relaxation. Co-sleeping may even encourage extended breastfeeding.
While traditional bed sharing is not advised with infants, you can find other creative ways to foster successful night-time nursing. Room sharing helps; you can try a co-sleeper that pulls up to the side of your bed or get a traditional bassinet that keeps baby safely at arm’s reach.
Less bedtime stress
Some toddlers have a serious case of bedtime FOMO (fear of missing out). They don’t want to be relegated to their own room and separated from the comforting proximity of their parents.
As an adult with limited time of your own, you may have other ideas about how you want to spend your evening hours. This can lead to a war of the wills, and, spoiler alert: your toddler may win.
The sleep drama can be exhausting, especially in the middle of the night, and many parents would rather keep the peace than spend hours in hostile negotiations with a tantruming toddler.
Bed sharing can cut down on the time, energy, and effort it takes to get a little one off to Snoozeville. As with all parenting decisions, you have to pick your battles.
While co-sleeping is a blessing for some, other parents view it as an unfortunate habit they fell into rather than a choice they actively made.
You may feel exasperated when a toddler who started out sleeping in their own bed, comes padding into your room at 1 a.m. Whether it’s due to recurring nightmares, sleep regression, or plain old habit, these disruptions can impede everyone’s ability to sleep.
Even if you make the conscious decision to co-sleep, it’s important to realize that it does come with a few potential drawbacks.
Poor quality sleep
Cute as it may sound, co-sleeping can also be majorly disruptive. Suffice to say, that while toddlers look angelic in slumber, their little limbs like to flail around, and your quality of sleep may suffer as a result of this veritable dream dancing.
A 2015 study found that mothers with infant co-sleepers reported more night wakings and poorer sleep than their counterparts with infants sleeping on their own. If you’ve ever watched a toddler’s sleep acrobatics you can guess that trying to snooze through that doesn’t get any easier.
Sleep deprivation and well-being go hand in hand. Parents are notoriously starved of rest and downtime; many moms and dad need mental and physical space to reset and refresh their bodies and minds before the start of another hectic morning.
A 2018 study found that moms who co-slept with toddlers that perpetually woke or disruptively moved around, lost an average of 51 minutes of sleep per night and had higher reported levels of anxiety, stress, and depression.
Lack of kid-free time
Sharing a bed as a family may limit your ability to have quality 1:1 time with your partner. You might not be able to catch up after a long day, snuggle, or watch a movie together.
And bedtime sex is, of course, also off the table when you have a toddler smushed between you and your other half (although many parents find ways to get creative in solving this issue).
Even without the concerns of how co-sleeping affects your relationship with your partner, you may just desire some time during which you can rest and recharge without feeling touched out and on-duty. There’s nothing wrong with needing some time that isn’t about meeting someone else’s needs.
Co-sleeping shouldn’t come at the expense of your relationship or your personal needs, so it can be helpful to make sure you and your partner are on the same page if and when you decide to share a bed with your toddler.
Social judgment concerns
As parents, we often feel pressured to conform to societal norms and expectations. Choosing to co-sleep with a toddler can feel like the “wrong” choice — especially by Western standards.
Many parents feel like they’ll be judged or perceived as a failure for allowing their kids to sleep in their beds for all or part of the night — even if it’s a decision they have willingly and happily made.
Co-sleeping is a valid choice. If it works for you and your family, there’s no reason to stop.
However, if you are eager to take back your mattress real estate and enforce independence, it may be time to make the big transition. It won’t be easy, but, with a few steps, you can make the switch from co-sleeping to solo sleeping. Here are a few tips to help make it a smooth process:
Try room sharing
Toddlers want to know that a parent is close by at night — especially if they’re accustomed to co-sleeping. This change doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If you are open to a happy medium, consider room sharing.
You can add a crib, a small mattress, or other separate sleeping space to your bedroom. You can take back your personal space, but still provide your comforting presence.
This is a marathon not a sprint, so have patience in the process. A transition should be gradual, so start your toddler in their own room or bed, knowing that they might find their way to you in the middle on the night.
Feel free to walk them back to their room when this happens. Show kindness and give verbal reassurance. Just keep at it, and don’t give up. In time, the change will stick.
Focus on a positive bedtime routine
Bedtime can be an instant fight. Instead of going head-to-head with an adamant 3-year-old, try to make your nightly bedtime routine a positive and enjoyable experience.
Read stories, sing songs, have a ritual of 10 hugs and kisses, and then say goodnight. There may be crying and pleading, but, they’ll come to know what to expect and eventually accept this new normal.
Work with a professional
If you’re at your wits’ end, consider seeking help. Your pediatrician can help you make a sleep plan for your toddler.
Sleep consultants or coaches can be immensely helpful, too. They have seen it all, heard it all, and have incredible specialized insight about routines, patterns, and disruptions.
Sometimes you need an outside opinion and a gentle push to get to the sleep situation you’ve been dreaming about.
If co-sleeping is the right fit for your family, go ahead an embrace it like a toddler snuggling his mama. If it’s creating stress or causing you to lose precious Zzz’s, rethink your situation and reclaim your space. Sleep is sacred, so enjoy the cuddles or soak up the solitude — you do you.