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Q+A: How Can I Break My Son's Co-Sleeping Dependence?

Q. When my son started in the big-boy bed, my husband would lie with him -- and would often fall asleep. When my husband works late, my son asks me to lie in bed, but I have to tend to the baby. Help!

A. We're currently having a similar issue in our house, but it's the other way around. Sometime around 4 a.m., we hear the pitter-patter of little feet down the hall, and before we know it, our 3-year-old, James, who recently got his own big-boy bed, has hoisted himself up and snuggled down between us. After half an hour or so of getting our backs kicked with pajama'd feet, one of us totes him, either asleep or nearly so, back to his room. We're mostly not worried about this, figuring he'll stop doing it on his own as soon as the novelty wears off.

Your issue, though similar in the "he doesn't want to sleep alone all the time" way, is different in that your husband has made a teensy mistake starting out. Falling asleep with your son has become a crutch for the little guy, no different from needing a pacifier, a blankie, a night-light, or an army of dolls. Sleep experts say it's fine to lie down in your child's bed at night -- but the trick is to leave before he is fully snoozing. Your child needs to see and hear you get out of bed; he should get the benefit of your comfort and soothing but do the sleeping part on his own.

You need not go cold turkey, but you do have to start shifting gears. On nights when you're doing bedtime duty and your husband's not there, create your own ritual. Tell your son: "We're going to cuddle in your bed and read these three books, then sing two songs. Then Mommy will lie with you for a while, then you get five kisses, then I'll go, okay?" It may not work perfectly or in that sequence each time (preschoolers are aces at renegotiating the terms), but the key part is the departure, and that shouldn't be negotiable. Be prepared to go back more than once if necessary until your son gets accustomed to the new routine. Also be sure to talk to your husband about the reason you both should adhere to the new routine; you and he together have to gently teach your son to fall asleep on his own. Be sure to explain that it's not mean; instead, it's a valuable skill your child should learn. Now that I think about it, your husband may have a harder time being "trained" than your son, but rest assured -- you'll all be snoozing calmly before long.

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.

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