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Thursday
Jan122012

Musical Beds: Helping Everyone Get a Good Night's Rest

We have one rule when it comes to sleep in our house. Everyone needs to sleep and everyone deserves to be comfortable when they are sleeping. Where people sleep or how often that changes, isn't really relevant as long as everyone is able to sleep comfortably. Sounds idyllic, you might say. But how do you make that happen? Let me tell you the story of how we got there.

Before we had kids, I had a colleague that I'll call Mike. Mike often came into the office in the morning complaining about a sore neck or a sore back. Ask him why and you'd get an earful. His daughter wet the bed, so they got her changed and brought her into their bed so they didn't have to change the bed in the middle of the night. Then, his toddler son would wake up and want to come to their bed, but there wasn't enough space, so he would go over there and sleep with him. The problem? His son had a toddler bed. This scenario, or some version of it, played out frequently enough that I knew when we had a baby that we were never going to buy a toddler bed. The rest of our sleep arrangements worked themselves out over the years, but buying a toddler bed was not something we ever considered.

Who sleeps where and in what type of bed has changed

many, many times since our first child was born seven years ago. But it seems like the most challenging time for a lot of parents is during the toddler years, especially if they are adding a newborn sibling at the same time. So I thought I would talk about what our sleeping arrangements were like when our children were that age.


  • When Julian was around one year old, we took down the large-sized laundry hamper in his room (also known as a crib) and replaced it with a double futon (which used to be our guest bed) equipped with a bed rail (which you can see pictured in my co-sleeping safety post). Once we did that, most nights we would put him to bed in his room, and then sneak out once he was asleep. Initially, it was almost always me putting him to bed because he nursed to sleep, but he would go down for my partner with a combination of a bottle of breastmilk followed up by a pacifier  if I was out for the evening (as well as for daytime naps because I worked and he was a stay at home dad).

  • We bought a king-sized bed for our room and then moved our queen sized bed to the guest room to replace the futon (my mom came to visit and help out almost every week, so we needed another sleep space). Before Emma was born, when Julian woke up at night, I would either go and join him in h is bed (which was not a toddler bed!) or I would bring him to our bed.
  • When I was pregnant with Emma, we gradually stopped bringing Julian to our bed at night and my partner also started more frequently being the one who would go and sleep with him at night if he needed someone. We didn't want it to be a sudden switch from mommy to daddy once the baby arrived, so we made the switch gradually.
  • Once Emma arrived, she slept with us in our bed (following safe bed sharing guidelines) and Julian kept sleeping in his bed, with Daddy going to him as needed at night.
  • But once Emma was a little bit bigger and the suffocation risk wasn't a big issue, things became more flexible. If one parent was sick, that person could sleep alone (to get more rest and not keep others awake with coughing) while the other parent slept with the kids. If one of us snored, we could kick that person out or sneak away to the other bed. If one bed got wet due to a leaky diaper, we didn't have to change the bed in the middle of the night.

As long as everyone was sleeping, the "where" didn't matter so much. Here's the three of us lying in Julian's bed cuddling.


This approach was based on the size of our house and the space that we had available. Not everyone has the same space available, but similar arrangements could be worked out (temporarily or permanently) with a mattress on the floor or a pull-out couch (not for the newborn, but okay for older kids or a parent alone). Creating options, so that no one keeps the rest of the family awake at night, helps everyone to get a bit more rest.

I think the musical beds approach has also made our kids more comfortable with sleeping in new and different places. As long as we are there, they are not attached to a particular bed, nightlight, or star stickers on the ceiling. Whether it is a hotel, a tent, or a relative's house, they are pretty easy going.

Now that our kids are older, we still have very fluid bed space. We still have the king-sized bed, Emma (4 years) now has the double bed, and Julian (7 years) has a bunk bed. But as I sit here and type, Daddy and the two kids are cuddled upstairs in the king-sized bed.  As they grow, finding a balance between independent sleep and keeping the closeness of the family bed is important to us and the musical beds approach continues to work for that.

Need more sleep tips and resources? Check out my Gentle Baby and Toddler Sleep Tips and Read How We Transitioned from Nursing to Sleep to Other Forms of Comfort.

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Reader Comments (30)

We have the musical beds here too and our daughter is six. Same philosophy from the beginning - the priority is everyone getting a good night's sleep not arbitrary rules about who should be sleeping where and when and by what age. It all changes depending upon who is ill, who needs more sleep, who has insomnia, who needs extra cuddles, etc.

Works for us!

January 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSandra

We have our own version of musical beds too. Our 2-year old and 9-month old "share" a room, which means the 9-month old sleeps in the room, the 2-year old sleeps in our bed until we're ready to sleep and then we move her to the couch (where she prefers to sleep, apparently). If the 9-month old wakes up in the middle of the night, I move to the bed in the kids' room to nurse her, or I move her to our bed and the hubby moves to the 2-year old's bed for "uninterrupted" rest. I agree--whatever works!

January 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRae

We have a 6 year old, 4 year old, 1 year old, and a baby on the way. Our philosophy is that whatever equals sleep is usually good. :) So far I'm not sure it has led us wrong.

January 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCasey

I hadn't thought about that downside of a toddler bed. It never would have occurred to me to sleep in my child's toddler bed with them. I'd be worried about breaking it. We have one, but our almost four-year old stopped waking up in the night when she was two. Her rare night wakings occur when she's really sick or there are fireworks in the middle of the night. Her one-year old sister starts the night in her crib and we bring her to our queen bed when she wakes to nurse. We've had a few four-in-the-bed nights, and they're not fun. Thanks for sharing this. It gives me something to consider going forward.

January 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie

Ha! What a perfect post to read on a night when my 2YO just can't sleep. I think the musical beds idea is fabulous. I only wish we had the space to create a second sleeping spot that's more comfortable than our couch (nope, a pull-out couch wouldn't fit or be of much use). It's really hard on nights like this because if Munchkin can't sleep, none of us do. However, I still have it better than most of the rest of the planet. Many families in the world have only one room for eating, sleeping and everything else. In the developed world, we have so many discussions about the safety of co-sleeping and options to consider when it's not working. Rarely do we think of people who simply don't have a choice in the matter. I'd like to know: what do THEY do when a toddler can't sleep?

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSylvia@MaMammalia

I'm glad to hear your seven ear old still sleeps with one of you at least sometimes. Our son mostly sleeps in his own bed, but goes on jags where he sleeps with one of us for several nights in a row. I don't know why I let it bother me, but I guess part of me feels he "should" be sleeping on his own.

My husband moved to the guest bed when the baby came. He's not good when he's short on sleep and when he wakes he has a hard time getting back to sleep. The baby sleeps with me. I explain that we have a boys sleeping room and a girls sleeping room. :)

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlisa d

Musical beds around here, too. We've never had a toddler bed but that was more luck than planning. We bought a new Queen-sized bed when I was pregnant with my second. Our old Queen went in the kids' room. "On paper," the 4 yo and 2 yo share that Queen but I end up in it with them at least half of most nights. For a while, it was because the 4 yo needed reassurance at bedtime but lately it's because the 2 yo is waking all night and calling for me. The 4 yo has gone through phases of coming into our bed if he wakes up around 4 or 5 in the morning. We coslept in our Queen with each baby until s/he started crawling (20-24 weeks for each kid) and since we are such heavy sleepers, I was concerned that s/he'd crawl off. So far, our 6 mo pretty happy in either the crib, which is in the kids' room or the playpen, which is in our room.

I have a different question about bed/room arrangements. I'm already feeling some social pressure to put my two oldest in separate rooms because one's a boy and one's a girl. Do you have any thoughts on room-sharing? I wonder how long I can and should resist the social pressure. Because really, it would involve a massive financial and possibly employment rearrangement for us to upsize homes. It's not impossible, but I'd like to delay as long as I can.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren L

I love your rules for sleep, and also thought toddler beds are a waste of money. Right now my daughter (almost 3) sleeps in our king sized bed and my husband often sleeps in the double in her room because he snores. Not sure exactly how it will all work out when our next baby is born, but we'll work it out.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

Another musical beds family here!

Our 3.5 year old, 20 month old and us parents sometimes share the king-size bed. But more often, my older daughter sleeps on a single size mattress on the floor next to our bed and joins us when she wakes in the morning for some cuddles! Sometimes it's Daddy on the single and Mom and the girls in the big bed. Or vice a versa. Every once in a while, we get both little ones on the side mattress. Then Mommy and Daddy have room to spread out.

Safety note: now that our youngest is 33 lbs and only 2 lbs lighter than her older sister, we feel its safe for the kids to co-sleep with each other. We didn't start this until she was 18 months.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

I think this is the best rule of thumb I have read so far, because it is flexible and is something that any family in an situation with any type of sleeper can follow... I think that too many parents get caught up either in the ideology of cosleeping and don't pay attention to their needs or the needs of their kids- some parents don't sleep well with kids in bed, and some kids don't sleep well in bed with others (both of my kids went through phases where they didn't sleep well in bed with us). This is a much more flexible way to look at the concept, and it meets the needs of everyone in the family, not just the kids. My kids are older now and we no longer have a big enough bed (the door to upstairs didn't allow our queen box spring to be moved upstairs when we moved in, and we haven't been able to afford to get a king- they have split boxes usually), so we strongly suggest they stay in their own beds (they share a room, which I think helps) until my husband gets up to go to work at 4:15, then they're welcome to come to bed with me, and if needed (or if my husband is snoring or taking up too much bed...) I get in bed with them, but I find they need that a lot less now that they're older, particularly my very independant 5 year old- my husband over-indulged New Year's Eve and was asleep catty-corner on the bed (on top of the covers!), but when I crawled in bed with my daughter, who I prefer to sleep with because my son kicks, she nearly kicked me out!

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrandis

PS I also appreciate that you prepared well ahead of time for the birth of your next- I think that can be the hardest on a child who co-sleeps, when the parents don't prepare them and suddenly baby is born and things change... it's not good for the older child.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrandis

This is a perfect post to have sitting in my inbox this morning... We have just moved our 2 year old to a "big girl" toddler bed and getting a toddler to stay in her bed all night feels like a losing battle. We'll likely be moving a double mattress into her room this weekend. Thanks for this post, it makes me feel like that is a reasonable acceptable decision instead of caving.

I'm happy to co-sleep with her, except that my (weaned) 2 year old has what I call "sneaky hands" and wants to sleep with her hand down my shirt on my breast/nipple - which drives me bonkers and keeps me awake. She was weaned at 20 months, and this became a problem after I stopped nursing her. Any ides on how to curb this? I know it comforts her, but I keeps me up all night and I have to sleep so I can get up and go to work in the morning.

Great series!

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJaime

We have done a lot of musical beds here. Both boys had double mattresses on the floor pretty early on -- a toddler bed did not make sense for nursing them to sleep or in the night!

When I was pregnant with our second, our first was still joining us in our room in the middle of the night, and I didn't want him to feel "replaced", so the baby initially slept in a co-sleeper attached to our bed. That way, if our three year old came in during the night he could still have his usual place between mom and dad.

I do want to add that prior to the second being born, I was responsible for putting my older son to bed (started the night in his own room). We thought we needed to prepare him ahead of time to accept daddy in that role, because once the baby was born there would be times I couldn't stay with him at bedtime. But he resisted this, so we didn't push it. And guess what? From the day we brought the baby home, our older son was just fine having daddy put him to bed. I even remember him telling me one evening when I went in to kiss him good night, "it's OK mommy, you can go feed my brother now". It all worked out, so we shouldn't have stressed so much about it. Even today, DH puts #1 to bed, and I put #2 to bed (stories etc.). Plus, quite a while back #1 stopped waking up in the night -- he now goes to sleep in his own room, and wakes up there in the morning. Our 4 year old still wakes, and I usually join him in his room, or sometimes he hops in with us. But I know that soon enough that just like his brother, he'll eventually sleep all the way until morning in his own bed.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

Claudia has sneaky hands as well. It has gotten better but it just required a LOT of moving the hands and telling her that I didn't like it. Now when Claudia needs to "fondle" something to sleep she plays with my elbow; weird? yes, but one of my cousins does this to me still (she is in her 20s) so I am used to it.

Also Claudia is getting used to sleeping with her stuffed animal, maybe your baby could get talked into trying her hands at a small, soft toy?

Good luck

--Andy

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFlautaMom

Jamie:

You just reminded me that there is another related post of mine that I meant to link to in the post. I'm going to edit to add it now, but I'll put it here too. Basically, the post talks about how we transitioned from nursing to sleep to other forms of comfort in the family bed. My daughter still likes to "grab" something (usually my neck or ear), but I don't let her do anything that is uncomfortable for me.

http://www.phdinparenting.com/2010/03/01/a-different-kind-of-baby-led-weaning

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Karen:

My kids each have their own room now, even if they don't always sleep in it. That said, we had considered having them share a room and turning the other room into a playroom/art space/workspace for them. I wouldn't have any issues with it until the kids themselves start expressing a desire for more privacy (I would guess often in the pre-teen years, but not sure).

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

My daughter does this too, now that she is not nursing. I try to let her put her hand on the side of my breast and I keep my hand over my nipple until she falls asleep.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

Musical beds is a grand idea! Now that we have #2 on the way, I've been wondering how we're going to handle future sleeping arrangements. We only have room for a queen in our room, and a day bed in the second bedroom.

I mean, our crib makes such a nice storage compartment for outgrown clothes, pillows and toys -- it would seem a shame to convert it to a toddler bed. Looks like the Hubby will be moving to the day bed!

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterwood turtle

Thanks for the replies! I thought I was the only one with a kid who had sneaky hands. She resists my neck or holding my arm or elbow, and just keeps going for the boob and pulling my arm away when I try to block her hand. I've been trying to explain that it is uncomfortable and she has some empathy and is better until she gets over tired or upset. The sneaky hands make me feel guilty for weaning her...like she wasn't ready. We'll keep trying to redirect the sneaky hands. At this point I've had 3 sleepless nights this week, so this post and knowing that we're not the only family with a toddler that doesn't sleep 12 hours in their own bed is a life/sanity saver.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJaime

With baby number 3 on the way we decided our gift to each other this Christmas would be a king sized bed. The boys each have their own rooms right now but will move in together in the next few months. The baby will stay in our room and when he's ready will have his own room with a crib and extra twin bed. We're relieved we have the extra space this time around for kids and grow ups to shift as need be!

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSara

I know the musical beds approach well. I also moved my kids from the (mostly unused) crib for similar reasons - I wanted flexibility, and a toddler bed didn't offer that.

I think it's pretty much impossible to come up with a single sleep solution that's going to work for every family, all the time. Being adaptable is key.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

My son isn't weaned and he developped 'sneaky hands' around your daughter's weaning age, Jaime. I cover my free nipple with my hand when he nurses, which leads him to change side. My point: it probably has nothing to do with weaning and more with a developmental phase.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter'Away from your crazy mom'

Thanks for the musical post, Annie!
We do that too. And I'll feel less weird knowing that we are not alone.
That still doesn't tell me how to convince my two and a half year old to stay in bed when it's time to sleep. But at least I feel that our sleeping choregraphy once he's down can be left alone.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter'Away from your crazy mom'

Yeah, I didn't feel like I had a whole post worth of advice to write on that. I did, however, mention it briefly in the breastfeeding toddlers post. I put a rule in place with my toddler that there was no nursing between dinner and bedtime. That way I had enough milk and he had enough interest in nursing, that I was usually able to convince him to go to bed and he usually got sleepy enough nursing that he fell asleep. That plus exhausting him during the day and having a consistent bedtime routine. But it didn't work all the time. There were certainly times when my kids would finish nursing and then want to get back up again.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Amen. I get the side-eye sometimes when I talk about our bed space. Right now we have a queen with a twin pushed up against it for the three of us and it works really well, but apparently the American dream includes a damn toddler bed. I look at those cute beds at Ikea and damn ARE they cute, but the idea of an actual human of any size sleeping in them is laughable. It's funny because whenever someone criticizes our co-sleeping arrangement, it always starts off as, 'I would love to sleep with my child, but...' Makes me think that it's just an appearances thing that is keeping everyone in their own rooms.

Yes - flexibility is absolutely the key. When I was pregnant with my second we got a king size bed and we put a futon on the floor for my then four-year-old who wanted her "own" bed at the time but not in a different room. I would put her to sleep each night on the futon - sometimes she would come to bed with us. The baby co-slept with us but with me in between her and anyone else in the bed.

My girls are now nine and thirteen. We have had all sort of musical bed arrangements - I never worried about trying to control the result. Children grow up and eventually want their own sleep space - our thirteen-year-old is very interested in her own private space now. Our nine-year-old is currently battling a fear of dying while she is sleeping so she is in our bed again after a good amount of time spent in the bunk bed with her sister. That's okay. I know it will shift again.

On a side note, when we were planning to buy a King bed, co-sleeper friends advised to get the Eastern King, not the California King, because it was wider. My husband wanted the California King because he is tall - so that's what we got. At those times when we had everyone in the bed and he felt squished and uncomfortable (because somehow the children always seem to squeeze right up to you and push you onto the edge), I would chuckle and say, "Yes, but how about your feet? There should be lots of room there!"

January 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSusan @ The Sacred Mother

Yes! Thank you for this! SO happy to see all the mamas out there chirping in. Last night, for the first time in her whole life (almost 11 months) my daughter was still asleep in her own bed at midnight.

My partner and I were in our big-feeling bed and I couldn't sleep without her. But I also didn't want to wake her up to drag her into my bed.

So we both joined her on the floor bed she has in her room. All the beds in the house are comfiest when we're all there together!

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenn

My friend Julie just wrote a post about kids sharing rooms and I asked her your question re: kids of different genders sharing a room. http://www.yummymummyclub.ca/blogs/julie-cole-the-baby-machine/sibling-room-sharing

January 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

This describes our attitude and approach to sleeping arrangements perfectly! I have wondered if there was anyone else who had discovered the wonderful flexibility of sharing sleep with their different children, or all them ( depending on the night!!). My husband is currently with our two older sons, while I sleepy-nurse our baby in another bed! Thanks for posting this!

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteph

I love this idea! Musical beds sounds so much nicer than labeling the shuffle something negative. I like your family sleep rules and I think I'll be adopting them in my house, too. Why stress over conforming to the norms when it doesn't work? Thanks for sharing... I'm about to read the rest of your posts on sleep now!

October 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

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