ask an expert

How can we get our 13-month-old more comfortable with sleeping all night in his room?

We have been letting our 13-month-old son sleep with us when he wakes in the night. We would really like him to stay in his own bed - but I have a hard time just letting him cry. We aren't getting a full-night's sleep and are exhausted.

Greg Severson | Pediatrician

Greg Severson

From 6 to 18 months of age children show rapid advances in growth and independence - going from sitting to rolling to crawling and ultimately walking in a short period of time.

Sometimes this is a 'perfect storm' for sleep problems to develop. You have a rapidly-growing child feeling vulnerable in his new independent world. You need to teach him self-control, sometimes in the middle of the night - when you may be sleep-deprived. Learn more from Dr. Severson about this stage of growth, how and why sleep problems may develop.

Steps to take

There are steps you can take to help him learn to sleep. Be aware, however, this change will not be quick - or easy.

If the child has been sleeping in the parent’s bed for some time, he/she does not want to give up the physical comfort and security of being there. Changing a child’s sleep habits will take time, will likely lead to frequent protests and outbursts by the child, and will lead to interruptions in the parent’s sleep. A parent will only successfully get a child out of their bed if they are willing to deal with the child’s crying. 

The parent must be more stubborn than the child. With patience and time the problem will resolve.

For a child to sleep through the night in his/her own bed, the child must learn to put himself/herself to sleep, especially after waking in the middle of the night and be confident the parents are close by if needed, even when the child cannot see them.  

1. Make the child's bedroom and bed inviting.

  • If possible move things the child found comforting in the parent’s room into the child’s room.
  • Place a photo of the child’s parents or family in a non-breakable frame next to or in the child’s bed.  
  • Provide the child with things they find comforting:  a pacifier, a stuffed animal, a blanket, music, or a night light.
  • Make it a rule that books will only be read to the child when the child is in their own bed, NOT their parent’s bed.

2. Making the parent’s bed and bedroom less inviting.

  • Try crowding the space (move close to the child, flop your leg or arm over the child’s body) the child sleeps in.  
  • If there is a television in the parent’s room, turn it off.
  • Removing blankets or adding blankets could make the temperature of the parent’s bed less inviting.
  • Refuse to read books or have conversations with the child in the parent’s bed.
  • Discourage cuddling in the parent’s bed.

3. Quickly return the child to his own room if he wanders in.

Removing a child from the parent’s bed is most successful if the child cannot return to the parent’s bed.  Kids around 15-18 months of age can climb out of their bed and wander into the parent’s bedroom.  

  • If a child leaves their bed and wonders into the parent’s bed, the parent should take the child by the hand and walk or carry him/her back to their own bed.  
  • As the child is placed in bed say “Goodnight, go to sleep” and leave with minimal fanfare.   
  • A parent may have to do this several times during a night.  
  • If necessary it is OK to put up a barrier (child proof gate, or lock on the door) to keep the child in their room.

4. Help the child learn how to fall asleep on his/her own - starting with naps.

Naps are a less stressful time for parents and it is easier to ignore the protests of a child during the day. The parent doesn’t have to worry the child’s crying will wake other people in the household.

  • Before placing the child in their bed, be sure he/she is not hungry. 
  • Change a dirty diaper.  
  • At their designated nap time, place the child in her/his bed while still awake but getting sleepy.
  • It is OK to pat the child, kiss the child, or give the child a pacifier.  Tell the child "Everything is fine, go to sleep" and leave.

5. Be ready for crying.

The child who screams when placed back in their bed when they would prefer to be in the parent bed, is no different than the child who screams when the parent removes a shiny sharp knife from the child’s hand.

If up to this time the parent has been putting the child to sleep before placing him/her in their bed then the child will likely cry.   

  • Remember the child only wants to know where the parent is. 
  • Expect the child to cry for up to 1-3 hours initially.

If up to this time the parent has been inconsistently responding to the crying, than the child has learned, the longer you cry the more likely the parent will show up.  As a result the child may cry for longer than 1 to 3 hours the first night.

6. Reassure your child that you are close by.

The child needs to fall asleep on their own.  Because of “Stranger Anxiety” the child will be more comfortable if she/he knows the parents are close by even though he/she cannot see them. 

You can teach this by periodically reappearing in the child’s room until the child falls asleep.  Here is how to go about this:  

  • If the child is still crying after 5 minutes; return to the child’s room, reassure the child telling him/her, "Everything is fine, go to sleep", and leave.
  • If the child keeps crying, than in 10 minutes return and do the same thing.  
  • If the child continues to cry, in 15 minutes return to the child’s room and repeat the process.  
  • From that point on continue to cycle into the child’s room every 15 minutes until the child is asleep and/or no longer crying
  • If child causes himself/herself to vomit due to crying, clean the child, don't pick her up/hold her/etc. After cleaning the child tell her, “Everything is fine, go to sleep” and leave the room.
  • Each subsequent day the length of time the child cries will get shorter in duration.  By the 3rd or 4th day the crying should be minimal.
  • Once things are going well at nap time, than start the same routine at bedtime.

7. Sometimes it is easier to wean a parent from the child’s room.

Here’s how to go about this:

  • Place a chair into the child’s room, beside the child’s bed. The parent will sit in the chair while waiting for the child to fall asleep.  Never get into the child’s bed.  It will be difficult to reverse this habit and the parent may fall asleep in the child’s bed.
  • After completing the family’s “bedtime routine” (brushing teeth, a drink, a story, a kiss, and an “I love you goodnight and go to sleep”), the parent should sit in the chair, turn away from the child, and read their own book or listen to music.  Don’t talk to the child or interact in any other way with the child from this point on.
  • The parent should stay in the chair until the child falls asleep.
  • Overtime the chair should gradually be moved out of the child’s room; first some distance from the bed, than to the bedroom doorway, and finally outside the doorway.
  • Once the child is falling asleep with the parent located outside the doorway, than the parent should no longer need to hold the bedside vigil.
  • If the child wakes during the night, the parent should check on him/her, give him a reassuring pat or kiss, and leave.

8. Be sure you aren't avoiding intimacy with your partner.

Parents sometimes allow children to sleep in their bed to avoid confronting intimacy issues or to fulfill their own psychological needs. This is unhealthy and selfish. If you are dealing with these are issues, seek counseling.

Read more answers by Dr. Severson