From Bed-sharing to Toddler Bed. When and How?
By guest expert Moorea Malatt
By the time a bed-sharing child is 8 months or older, suddenly moving them to a crib can be a very confusing and scary experience. Folks often move to small toddler-sized beds but then wonder how they are supposed to leave the room without their toddler just following them out. Sometimes the tall family bed or bedroom isn’t safe for a newly mobile toddler and putting your own mattress on the floor may not be an option.
By bed-sharing you have likely avoided some pitfalls of crib-sleeping like broken bones from jumping, sleep training with bars as separation, and the frequent recalls of dangerously made cribs. What you may not have escaped is sleep deprivation many families face when bed-sharing toddlers get a bit wilder in their sleep. Or maybe you are done with very frequent night nursing but you want to make any new sleep transitions gradual and gentle.
So, what’s next?
Montessori Floor Bed for Movers and Shakers
Whether 8 months or 3 years, my recommendation is the “Montessori Style” mattress on the floor works great to transition your child out of the family bed in a way that feels safe- with you right there! This is the best option if you are still nursing at some point during the night when you make this transition, and it is especially helpful when you are already so exhausted that you tend to fall asleep at your child’s bedtime.
Usually moving to a toddler bed in a child’s own room involves some version of night weaning, simply because getting up multiple times in the night and having to go down the hall means we’d miss out on even more sleep. The full/double sized floor mattress can allow you to put boundaries on nursing at your own pace and continue the snuggles.
Anything up above the floor is going to require more effort from you if you are giving your child new opportunities to fall asleep without falling asleep on the breast. That kind of sleep-learning helps the child learn how to “work himself down” or find some new sleep skills that do not include nursing to sleep. For toddlers, this often means getting out of bed and doing a lot of moving to figure out a new way to get sleepy. I really believe it can help children understand it is night-night time if we are present and available for a hand on the back or a cuddle.
For many, it goes from thrashing or crawling around and whining to singing and rubbing their own hair/head and then to just cuddling a special pillow. You can make the room as safe as possible to give your child agency of her body to get in and out of bed in the darkened room. (It’s this agency of one’s own body while learning that makes it Montessori) This way, you can better model sleepiness by not having to chase, force or restrain your child. You can even close the door to other rooms safely if you are with your child supervising and witnessing the learning process.
Other benefits include getting to keep the mattress around for years instead of buying a short-lived toddler bed, as well as your child being able to get out of bed to use the potty whenever you begin that learning process.
If you already have a toddler bed or only have room for something this size, much of the same applies, but you can use a comfy chair or pillows to sleep on next to the bed where you can model closed eyes and sleepiness. You can offer a back rub or hand holding or hair stroking rather than a snuggle. And still, your child may crawl out of bed and move around the room- that’s part of the learning! Breathe and model sleep time. If your child falls asleep on the floor, pick him up while telling him you are putting him in his bed to sleep and leave the room.
Be with your child until they fall asleep for at least the first 3-5 nights in the new bed and room as they become used to the new surroundings. Let them know that you will stay with them until they are fast asleep but that when they wake up, you will be sleeping in your own bed and they can call you to come to them.
Let’s say the bed transition goes well. Before you move to the next step of leaving the room and asking your toddler to fall asleep independently, make sure your child is:
completely comfortable in their bed and room
isn’t taking a really long time to fall asleep each night
not falling asleep on breast at bedtime and wake-ups
has experience with and feels safe playing alone for 10min
If you can help your child learn it is safe to sleep on her own mattress of her own volition between 8mo and 18mo, you will have an older child who is more capable of staying in bed and not getting out as they grow older (as opposed to the 3-year-old’s transition from enclosed crib to open bed which often leads to going back up into the parent bed in the middle of the night.)
Here are some other tips for rocking this kind of major night-time change:
It is important to prepare children ahead of time for the transition into their own bed. Ideally you can tell them two days ahead of time what to expect from the new room, new bed and with your own planned behaviors toward their nighttime behaviors and challenges. “At bedtime, we will do this. If you do this/say this, I will do that”
Commit to any new sleep arrangement for 4 nights before you make changes in your plan of having them sleep in their own bed or freak out that it isn't working. Most toddlers will protest any change to habits- as most humans do. Children need time to adjust and if we keep changing our plans, our lack of clarity means they are less able to trust our actions, our boundaries and their environment.
Plan bedtime a little early because it can take kids a while to figure out how to fall asleep in a new way, in a new space.
A younger child may be able to use an older sibling as a "lovey" comfort person in a Montessori bed for as long as the youngest is old enough to crawl (for safety)- unless your youngest still wakes frequently which may be too disturbing.
If your child is waking frequently at night, I strongly suggest you either wait a bit or work on the sleep associations causing that waking (motion or oral sleep associations) BEFORE moving into the new bed. It will mean you are going across the hall less at night, so you'll be less exhausted. Your child will experience less confusion, therefore having a more positive experience in her new space.
If you plan to night-wean and your child is waking more than three times to nurse, be mindful of your breast changes by massaging and fully emptying in the morning, and adding some additional hydration, additional daytime feeding time and/or herbal support to preserve your milk supply.
The goal is never simply to have your child fall asleep in a new space. The goal should be to create a new sense of sleep security. Simply falling asleep does not mean we will stay asleep or get ourselves back down to sleep if we are scared.
By making this move thoughtfully and gently, you can set your child up for a lifetime of sleep success!
If you need help with bed transitions, frequent night waking or difficult bedtimes, she offers online programs and Get Your Brain Back and Get Your Bed Back consulting support packages. Moorea’s Sleep Savvy Method was designed specifically to gently and effectively support bed-sharing and breastfeeding families.
Moorea Malatt (CPD, CLEC) is a Certified Lactation Counselor-Educator, Sleep educator and consultant, postpartum doula, author, mom of two and writer of “Whip It Out: Songs for Breastfeeding”.