When most parents consider putting two or more children in the same bedroom, our minds immediately jump to thoughts of siblings swapping stories, their late night talks and whispery giggles. If you’re reading this now and you have little ones sharing the same sleeping space, you know how far from this idealistic perspective it really is!
When our 5th child was born, we lived in a tiny 3 bedroom house…do the math! That’s 2 kids in one room and 3 in another. Our children are very close in age, so I have guided this family through the joys of room sharing more than once, and I hope it’s comforting to hear that they are all wonderful sleepers. Even after we recently moved into a larger home and have more bedrooms, sharing rooms is still our way of life.
Many times putting children in the same room is purely out of necessity — a move to a smaller home, a new baby joining the family or the need for a playroom, guest room or office. Whatever the reason may be, not many of us would choose to brave the room sharing journey unless we’re forced to! If your family is in the thick of it, below are some pointers that may eventually give you a tiny glimpse of the joys to come as they grow up together.
1. First of all: Accept the challenge, and know that it will be difficult in the beginning. Expect a 3-6 week transitional period — get through that and you’re golden! Recognizing and embracing this fact will make it much easier for you to remain patient and in control of your emotions.
2. If possible, keep the baby in your room until the night feedings and diaper changes have become more predictable and not as frequent. This not only leaves you feeling less anxious, but also gives the toddler time to adjust to his/her new sibling beforehand. Sometime after the 3/4 month mark is ideal.
3. At about 8 weeks of age, begin putting the newborn in the shared bedroom for naps (except for during the toddler’s naptime). This eases the transition, gets your toddler used to sharing her room and helps the infant adjust to his new sleeping place — sights, smells, etc. that differ from sleeping close to Mom.
4. Even very young toddlers understand more than we usually give them credit for. It’s important to be very open and honest about what it’s like to share a room with a baby. Don’t sugar coat it – say things like, “Babies cry at night sometimes, but Mommy will hear him and I will come check on you both.” Be upfront about the good and the bad so that your toddler is ready to take what comes. Offering an incentive for respecting their sibling, being patient, etc. also works well for many toddlers and preschoolers.
5. Use your kids’ sleep cycles to your advantage by staggering their bedtimes. Depending on their developmental stages as well as the quality of naps for each child, the bedtime hour may change from day to day. Whichever child needs to go to bed earlier should be put down at least 1 hour in advance of the other child. The goal is to sneak the 2nd child in when the 1st one is in a deep stage of sleep so that he doesn’t wake up easily. Sleep cycles in young children are only about 50 minutes in length. This means that if you factor in the time it takes for them to actually fall asleep, you’ll be putting the 2nd child down while the 1st one is 30 min into the deep, Non-REM stage of sleep. This is great news because in Non-REM sleep he will not wake up easily in response to outside noises or stimulation.
6. Utilize a visual sleep/wake-up cue such as the SleepBuddy Complete Sleep System to let your toddler know when it’s time to remain quiet and when she can sneak out of the room in the morning. This gentle tabletop light brings comfort and a sense of security for young children as they learn the expectations and boundaries that come with sharing a room. It also lets off the perfect glow for middle-of-the-night diaper changes so there’s no additional disruption.
7. Role play with your toddler or preschooler to show her how to respect her sibling when he is sleeping. Practice tip-toeing to the potty, turning the door handle all the way before pulling/pushing it closed, how to look at a book with a flashlight without shining it in baby’s direction, etc. These teaching moments go a long way when things go bump in the night and she has to accomplish a task without waking her sibling.
8. Use a noisemaker/sound machine/white noise. No, your child will not become addicted to it, and yes, it will save you from countless sleepless nights from one child waking another when the sheets makes a “ssshhhing” sound. Put it closest to the lighter sleeper and it will drown out disruptive sounds, guaranteed!
9. Two toddlers or preschoolers sharing a room can be challenging, but at this age rewards go a long way. Especially if you make them earn them as a team. This is not bribery — make sure they know that they are earning privileges for doing what’s expected of them. As adults, we do many things primarily because a beneficial outcome is on the other side. Why should this be different for children? We can’t expect them to do the right thing because they should be intrinsically motivated — that’s just not reality and it’s not fair. A motivating tool is sometimes just the nudge they need to learn that room sharing is fun when the rules are obeyed. Surprisingly, children outgrow these rewards quickly and appropriate behavior becomes a habit and a way of life.
10. For older children, bunk beds are ideal in a room sharing situation. They free up space in the room for an extra dresser or toy box, as well as make it difficult to cause problems when they can’t see each other.
11. Designate “special” places for the older child’s belongings. This shows her that you respect her space and you will help her teach the younger sibling to do the same. Many kids get pretty territorial when they’re not used to sharing their room and/or their toys. Knowing that their prized possessions won’t get lost in the shuffle can make all the difference and ease them into the acceptance stage quite rapidly.
12. With our children, there have been times when we move a child out of the room for sleep training purposes. This is a MUST if you are dealing with an infant who is in the habit of waking up for feedings when they don’t really need to eat, or a toddler who gets out of bed consistently. Move the child who is sleeping well into another room for 1/2 weeks to get the “problem child” sleeping well again. Don’t put this off, because it will only get worse and one child’s sleep issues will eventually cause sleep deprivation in the other child. You may have to do this more than once, but it’s worth it to get everyone back on track!
13. Many experts claim that children eventually get used to their sibling’s cries over time. I agree with this to a point, but I don’t believe leaving your baby screaming throughout the night hoping the other child will “get used to it” is the answer. Even if they don’t complain, the constant interruptions will have a detrimental effect. Small noises, grunting, even an occasional cry during a sibling’s deep sleep cycle are ok and will allow them to learn how to cope with sharing a room, but be prepared to remove the screamer if things get out of hand. Take him out of the room until he is calm, then put him back down. Repeat if necessary until he falls asleep. If this becomes a habit, it’s time to separate them for a week or so until you get him sleeping well on his own.
14. If you have a baby in the room sharing mix and he wakes up for a feeding, try to stay in the room so that you don’t disturb his ability to fall back to sleep. Use a soft nightlight (SleepBuddy is described above) if needed. If he’s a loud/fussy eater, or it’s in the early morning when the sibling is in a lighter stage of sleep, take him to a different room, but keep the lights low and try to return him to his crib quietly. With very young ones this may be problematic because you’re not sure if they’ll fall back to sleep, it’s ok to finish off the night by placing him in a bassinet/pack&play in your bedroom for the short term. Eventually the older child will get used to seeing you feed the baby, then fall right back to sleep, and she will soon be able to cope with the noises and short disruptions.
15. For naps, I always recommend separating the children. In our house, the older kid in the room is the one who moves to Mommy’s room at naptime. My kids always felt very special to do this, and after awhile it just became part of the routine. If you try to keep them together, there are bound to be issues! This is due to the fact that it’s more difficult to fall asleep in the daytime, and the sleep state is much lighter, so they wake up easily to the slightest sound. If it’s possible, allow them to nap alone to protect their ability to catch a restorative nap on a daily basis.
Even though it seems impossible at times, your children will get used to sharing their sleeping space and it’s so good for our kids to learn how to do this! We’re helping them in so many ways by teaching them how to cope with not being the king of the castle, so to speak. Through this experience they will grow in their ability to see things from another person’s point of view, to respect someone else’s time and space, and to have the companionship of a sibling.
Guest Post by Laura Swartz of Healthy Happy Sleep
Laura earned her certification through the Family Sleep Institute where she received one-on-one instruction from founder, Deborah Pedrick. Throughout the course of her child sleep consultant certification she completed over 70+ hours of training and currently attends continuing education classes and seminars regularly. Laura is qualified to work with children from newborns through age 5, as well as multiples and children with special needs. She graduated Suma Cum Laude from Georgia State University in 2002 with a BA in Early Childhood Education. She began her career as a first grade teacher, and now lives in Atlanta, Ga with her husband, Jimmy, and homeschools their 5 children ages 9,7,6,2 and 1. She is also the creator of the SleepBuddy Complete Sleep System.
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