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Keeping Toddlers In Their Beds

Apr06

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Dear Amalah,

Love your blog and your column! I was hoping you could offer advice on what seems to be a problem with no good answers – how to keep a toddler in bed.

Our daughter is 2 and a half, and has been in her big girl bed and room for about 4 months now. We moved her in about a month before my son was born. On the whole, it wasn’t a horrible transition – she liked the big girl room, was ok with the bed once it had a rail on it, etc etc. Of course, since the baby came we have had all kind of toddler unpleasantries – potty training backsliding, waking in the night, tantrums – but most of these things have gradually resolved, as all of the books said that they would (is there any other advice for toddlers besides “wait it out – things will be better in a couple of years”??) But we CANNOT. KEEP. THIS. KID. IN. BED.

We have a nice bedtime routine – bath, reading, singing – that usually goes pretty well, but 2 minutes after we go downstairs she pops up like a jack-in-the-box and is at the top of the stairs (there is a gate so she can’t come down). She used to yell for us, but lately she has been just sitting up there singing, talking, playing with her dolls.

Things we have tried to prevent/stop this:

- immediately returning her to bed without saying anything or any emotion (she just thought it was a game and we almost lost our minds)
– creating a sticker chart where she gets a small toy if she stays in bed and also can accumulate stickers toward movie (some success with this initially, but no stickers recently)
– taking away privileges (no TV the next day – as much as she loves Dora, nada)
– turning off the hallway light unless she’s in bed (she hates this, but it doesn’t prevent her from getting out of bed)
– yelling (ok, not really a strategy, more a loss of patience. Also totally ineffective after brief crying spell)
– ignoring her completely (eventually she goes to sleep at the top of the stairs)

We have also tried briefly closing her door, but confining her to her room is not really an option because she is now night time potty trained and will get out of bed to go potty by herself, which I don’t want to discourage in any way.

I should say that once she is asleep in bed (sometimes having been moved there) she does now sleep pretty well – maybe gets up once in the early AM, but will willingly get back in bed and go back to sleep if you walk her back there. But I am still concerned about the impact it’s having on her sleep to go to bed closer to 9:30 or 10:30 rather than 8:30 – she’s always been a kid who needed her sleep. She still takes a 1.5-2 hour nap every day (although we frequently fight this same battle for weekend naptimes also).

I am sort of despairing of anything that will motivate her to change her ways – she is extremely strong willed and very verbal and at this point she will recite back all of the consequences of getting out of bed in a singsongy little voice, like it’s a game. My husband thinks we should just ignore her and let her fall asleep on the landing. But where is the endgame? I’m afraid that we’ll still be at the same place in 6 months.

And did I mention that I have a 3 month old? I’m going back to work soon and would love to feel like I was addressing this issue in some sort of meaningful way rather than just flailing at it.

Help!!

Best,
Kate

Well, there’s no way around this, so I guess I should give you a heads up that you are going to hate my advice. HATE IT.

Because that first thing you did? The returning her to bed firmly and calmly, with no attention/eye contact, over and over? The one that made you almost lose your minds?

Yeah. That’s the one. You’ve gotta do that some more. (Since the potty training issue precludes stuff like child-proof doorknob covers or putting her back in a crib.) I’m guessing that was the first thing you tried, and your instincts were spot-on — she’s absolutely doing this for attention. But also to push your buttons and test your limits, which is why ignoring her out on the landing until she falls asleep isn’t really the right approach either. You’re not giving her the attention…but you’re also not letting her know that this behavior is unacceptable. Even though you’ve already spent alllllllll this time and effort telling her that this behavior is unacceptable! You’ve given up and she knows it, and as God is her witness, she’s gonna keep coming out of her room and fall asleep on the landing night after night after night.

Sure she could come to her senses and realize that this game isn’t all that fun anymore (and sleeping in bed is a whole lot more comfortable than the floor), and that realization could happen next week…or next month…or sometime after her fourth birthday. You get the idea. I’ve learned to never, EVER underestimate a toddler’s attention span and determination level when it comes to being completely ridiculous.

The key is 100% consistency. And patience, because it’s probably not going to work after one night of going back and forth from landing to bed for an hour. (Especially since she’s figured out how to break you once before.) Think of it more like kicking off a sleep training regimen. By night three or four you may feel completely mentally exhausted and convinced it’s not working, but you KNOW that if you break the consistency and cave and go back to co-sleeping/night feeding/pacing/whatever-not-ideal-in-the-long-term-thing-you-were-trying-to-solve-in-the-first-place, you’re gonna undo everything and may as well have not even tried. (Although I can’t tell you the number of sleep issue questions I have waiting in the queue that are basically that exact scenario: We tried X method for one night and Y approach for two nights and some nights we do Z and none of it worked immediately so we gave up and now don’t know what to do next.)

Be consistent. I know it feels like you’re engaging in a battle of wills with a two-and-a-half year old by trudging up and down the stairs so many times a night, and there’s definitely that aspect to it, but…well, we sleep in beds. We don’t sleep at the top of the stairs. We don’t disobey Mommy and Daddy at bedtime. These are perfectly sane, reasonable rules that need to be enforced in a sane, reasonable way. Escort her back to bed. Silently, emotion-free. No eye contact, no talking other than whatever phrase you guys settle on (Beds Are For Sleeping, or something). DON’T let your body language betray that you’re mad and/or your brain is leaking out your ears. Try to make sure that at least ONE of you is not on the complete verge of losing it — if either of you feel that way by say, minute 45 of night three, let the other parent take the next bedroom escape.

I PROMISE you that if you are consistent and stick with it, she will give up. Enough nights of not getting any landing play time and of falling asleep in bed, where she’s supposed to, she will give up. She may simply move her playtime to inside her room and continue to stay awake longer than you’d like (and if that happens feel free to start inching her bedtime up), but I suspect even that would be considered an improvement at this point? Anything but the naked, open defiance of cheerful, post-bedtime “HA HA LOOK WHAT I’M DOING” playtime at the top of the stairs?

One last idea — to try in conjunction with the back-to-bed chaperoning — is to take the baby gate down, if you’re reasonably comfortable with her walking down the stairs by herself. (Different for every kid, obviously.) The gate and the physical barrier that’s separating her from you might actually be stressing her out? And if the new baby is usually still downstairs with you, the gate could be exacerbating some jealousy and a need to act out/try to get your attention? Not to mention, if SHE’S having to make all those extra trips down the stairs and back up, she’ll probably tire herself out sooner…and thus give up sooner. If she’s reasonably balanced and capable of coming down by herself, wait for her to get to the bottom step, then immediately turn her around and march her back up. (Resist carrying, if at all possible, at least for some of the way up.) All that walking up and down with no reward or purpose might make this game seem a lot less appealing to her.

Photo source: Hemera/ Thinkstock

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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25 Responses to “Keeping Toddlers In Their Beds”

  1. liz Apr 06 at 1:16 pm Reply Reply

    What Amalah said. If you’re not comfortable with her coming downstairs by herself, can you find a chore or three that needs doing upstairs for the next few nights? That way YOU don’t have to march up and down.

    This might be a good time to tidy the linen closet or pack up your daughter’s winter clothes or something, so that you can immediately see when she’s out of her room and pop her back into it firmly.

  2. Kate Apr 06 at 1:42 pm Reply Reply

    Good advice all around. What if you, like Liz said, stayed upstairs for awhile until she actually fell asleep? Or.. and I know you probably won’t love this idea… stay in her room until she falls asleep? We went through something very similar when my 7 month old was born (big brother was almost 2.5 at the time). His reaction to the baby was to become much more needy and, specifically, to need a lot more from ME. This meant a lot of me sitting in his bed until he fell asleep at naps and at night. Yes, it drove me nuts and I was afraid that I was starting a horrible habit that would never end. But it really and truly was a reaction to the new baby and it resolved itself after about 5 or 6 months. Now he’s back to going to sleep on his own without any problem.

  3. Michelle Apr 06 at 2:03 pm Reply Reply

    This is THE EXACT.ISSUE.I’M.HAVING.RIGHT.NOW. I couldn’t have written it better except my 2.5 year old is a boy. So a spin on the question –
    My son stays over at my parents house every Saturday night and they let him sleep in bed with them. I hate to tell them they’re not allowed to do that anymore (my son and dad have an amazing bond) BUT, I think it’s going to kill any progress we make. I was ok with the co-sleeping there as long as it didn’t trickle over to behavior at home but unfortunately I think it has…
    Is my only option to tell them they have to make him stay in his own bed? (He has his own bedroom across the hall from theirs.)

  4. Candace Apr 06 at 2:55 pm Reply Reply

    I second Amalah!!! It’s the first method that works. Its the only thing that really works. I promise. It took us some time but it works! Makes you crazy! But it works!!! BE VERY CONSISTENT. Even on the 44th exit, and the 98th exit. Yes yes I know it sucks, but it works!

  5. Jess Apr 06 at 3:14 pm Reply Reply

    After 3-4 dasy of no progress with the returning him to bed over and over approach with our 2.5 year old, we actually ended up just sitting by his bed until he was asleep. I was worried about the precedent, but after a few weeks we were able to go back to an elaborate night-night routine without having to stay (although he still does beg us to sometimes). The main drawback is wasted time and a stiff neck when you fall asleep slumped on the floor by the toddler bed. And, FYI, this was around when our daughter was 4 months.

  6. Therese Apr 06 at 3:17 pm Reply Reply

    OMG, I am totally having the same issue right now with my son. He is 2 years, 10 months and just moved to his big boy bed a few weeks ago. Fortunately for me (depending on how you look at it) he is not yet night time potty trained so we put a baby proof doorknob thingy (you know what I mean) on the inside of his door so he can’t get out. He has yet to actually go to sleep any sooner but at least the reading books, playing with stuffed animals, singing, talking, changing clothes (seriously, this kills me!) is contained to his room. For a kid with no toys (accept for the aforementioned books and stuffed animals) actually in his room, he sure can find a lot of things to do at bedtime….The ironic thing of this is that we moved him out of his crib to a bed specifically for nighttime potty training. He has shown every indication that he is ready to get up and go potty during the night. Unfortunately, the getting out of his room 47 times in a row trumped the nightime pull-ups for me…. Good Luck with your daughter!

  7. Jadzia@Toddlerisms Apr 06 at 3:18 pm Reply Reply

    I totally agree with this advice.  The twin secrets are CONSISTENCY and BEING AS BORING AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE.  

    But it is rough.  I am dreading the transition to a toddler bed, and have put it off for my almost 2 year old until I can get her baby sister (5 months) sleeping through the night.  If I had 2 kids getting up at random intervals I very likely would lose my mind.

  8. Jessica Apr 06 at 3:41 pm Reply Reply

    What about a door knob cover on her door and you crack her door open once she is really asleep so she can get up at night to go potty? We are doing this with my son, he will play in his room for a little bit before bed but then go to sleep. He only has books and stuffed animals in his room so that limits his options. We crack his door when we go to bed so the potty is not an issue.

  9. Shana Apr 06 at 3:46 pm Reply Reply

    Kate – I don’t think that the grandma/grandpa thing is an issue. Our little guy has learned a whole new set of rules for grandma/grandpas house – some he likes and some he doesn’t. I actually think it’s been good for him to learn that different people do things differently. And I suspect that your little one will go through a bunch of different phases with you…regardless of where he’s sleeping at grandma/grandpa’s house. besides….they probably won’t listen to you anyway. :).

  10. Laura Apr 06 at 4:23 pm Reply Reply

    I like the advice of putting her back to bed, boring as possible etc. But just another suggestion that worked with our first was that we put one of those little potties in her room and she like peeing there if she needed to at night. That way you do have the option of the child-proof door knob and shutting her in. Of course if she decides it might be fun to dump the potty…

  11. JCF Apr 06 at 4:36 pm Reply Reply

    We tried the whole “return the kid to bed a million times,” and it absolutely did not work with our then two year old daughter, even after many nights of consistency. What we have done for the past year and a half or so is to sit in the bedroom with the kids while they fall asleep. We have three kids in the same room, and this is the only way we’ve found to prevent nighttime monkey business. We have a big comfy beanbag chair, and whoever is on duty reads on their phone or Kindle with a light until everybody is asleep (usually about 30-45 minutes). I actually don’t mind it, now that my kids are used to the procedure and don’ t mess around (generally). It gives me quiet time to read and relax before hanging out withy husband for the evening. Good luck!

  12. Katie Apr 06 at 5:08 pm Reply Reply

    Another person agreeing!  The secret is that it’s not like Supernanny–this is a battle that is going to take some time–two weeks, for us.  And yes, it is painful and tedious (I did it while 7 months pregnant).  I found that it helped if I could get him the instant I heard him out of bed, rather than after he’d already started playing, so I wound up spending several evenings just outside of his door (and out of his sightline) reading my Kindle.  

  13. Grammy Apr 06 at 6:01 pm Reply Reply

    Once again, I agree with Amalah. My grandson (he’ll be 3 in June) stays overnight with Grandpa and I once a week. We had to move him into a Big Boy Bed when he outgrew the playpen we were using for a portable crib. First time, up and standing in the hall near the living-room door SIX times, being taken back to bed with little or no conversation each time, before he fell asleep. The following week, it was only four times. The next week, only once.
    One thing that I think helped was that after the first week we gave him a small flashlight (with the old-fashion bulb, NOT LEDs because they’re too bright if he shines it in his eyes) and told him he could play with it as long as he liked, shine it under the covers or anywhere in the room, as long as he stayed in bed. For the past couple of months, he’s been falling asleep within about two minutes after being put in bed. I go in and turn off his flashlight when he’s asleep and he sleeps soundly through the night.

    AND — he is still co-sleeping at home. So whatever the differences in household rules, it doesn’t seem to bother him that it’s radically different here than at his house.

  14. Marie Apr 06 at 7:28 pm Reply Reply

    I only see a toddler who has a younger sibling that is ‘allowed’ to stay up late and feels isolated on the second floor, all by herself. Why don’t you take the baby and your phone and stay in her room (or on the big bed) nursing/reading until your toddler is asleep? I’d be extremely annoyed (and feel bad) if I had to get up from the couch with my nursing baby multiple times to give my other kid the silent treatment.

    And I’d skip the afternoon nap. If we let our 2,5 year old sleep for 2 hours during the day, she’ll stay awake until 1030 easily. When we just kept her busy she’d sleep from 800 until 800, not even waking up to go potty (she did stay dry though), she was that tired.

    Be nice to your kid! She’s only 2,5 years old and should not be punished or rewarded for how sleepy she is at the time you *want* her to go to sleep. Things change so fast at this age – you can’t expect a child to keep the same bedtime routine / times she had as a baby.

  15. a Apr 06 at 11:00 pm Reply Reply

    Really? Put him back in his bed and be “boring”? When I try this with my 2 1/2 year old, he kicks and screams and cries and bites and he’s out of his bed instantly. There’s *zero* time between attempts to pop out of bed. I put him in, and he’s out before my hands are even off of him, and after just a couple of rounds he’s sobbing and hitting and biting at the same time. Has anybody tried this technique through this level of resistance, and had it work? Our current accommodation is staying in his room until he falls asleep, which, after at least an hour per night for 2 1/2 years, I’m really, really tired of.

    • cassie Apr 09 at 6:31 pm Reply Reply

      I’m with you, A! I sit at the end of my 2 1/4 year olds bed until he’s asleep. Otherwise, he pops up IMMEDIATELY, and there’s all kinds of insane happening and no amount of boring or repeating the process will help that.

      (luckily, he handles night waking much better than going to bed. Usually, I just pull up his covers, hand him teddy, kiss his forehead and go! :))

  16. christy Apr 06 at 11:43 pm Reply Reply

    Remember that your kids will only be babies for a VERY short time. We all work and have busy lives and are very sleepy most of the time. But why complain? Soon your baby will be dating and then you will really want him/her asleep in bed by 8.

  17. Trust me, I'm a doctor Apr 07 at 2:37 pm Reply Reply

    It feels like we just did this.  My 2 year old was going to sleep really well on his own in the big boy bed until a series of health problems and vacations completely rocked our world.  After that he was up a few times each night and taking over an hour to go to sleep at night with us in the room.  We moved bedtime back a half hr, made sure waking and napping times were consistent and tried both super Abby marching back in and finally Ferber.  The marching back to the bedroom quickly became a game (happening 20-30 times a night).  We had to shut the door and check in every 10 minutes the first night, 15 the second…. It took 3 nights.  I know from the outside it seems like a short period of time that you should deal with but when you are in it and your quality of time with you child and partner are suffering majorly it is improtant to make a change.  Once he was able to go to sleep on his own he was able to stay asleep and that is what truly makes for a happier toddler….a well rested one!

  18. MR Apr 07 at 11:54 pm Reply Reply

    I took a completely different approach with my dd I guess. We did our share of putting her back to bed, but that was before she was 2. Once she got old enough to protest going to bed (which is what I see this being – she is trying to exert her power to say “I’m not going to sleep yet”), I simply told her she didn’t have to go to sleep, but she had to play quietly in her room. I’d even go so far as to hand her a book she could page through. I’d tuck her in and turn off the light on my way out, and she’d usually get up and get some more books or toys. But she always stayed in her room. And if she got too loud I would just remind her she had to play QUIETLY. We often heard her just in there singing quietly to herself. At some point, she would get tired and just go to sleep. She is 3.5 now and days she is tired and cranky, but fighting a nap, we just tell her she doesn’t have to nap, but, she needs some quiet time. She almost always falls asleep. Occasionally she even says, “Mom, I don’t want quiet time, I want to nap.” :) Um, ok. So, rather than putting her to bed over and over and over, tell her she can play quietly in her room (only coming out for potty). It also helped when we said she had to go to bed so WE could go to bed. We would go and watch something in our room, but as far as she knew, we were asleep. Sometimes we would hear her come out, look around (see the house was dark and everyone was “aslee
    “) and go back to bed. She just had to make sure she wasn’t missing anything. 

  19. Meg in VT Apr 09 at 1:54 am Reply Reply

    Whatever method you do use to solve this, remember that kids at this age are just starting to be able to imagine a reality beyond what is just in front of them (welcome to rejecting the first 6 pieces of clothing offered every morning! yay!). But sometimes that is scary and overwhelming, and a matter-of-fact stating of How Things Are can be so comforting. Our 2.5-year-old was coming into our bed in the wee hours of the morning (only fair as we had been taking the baby into bed — which we stopped doing as part of this). But when we took her back to bed with no conversation beyond ‘mommy and daddy sleep in their bed; you sleep in your bed’ the drama stopped, like right away. Also some subsequent drama (night wakings, asking for us to hold her hand while she went to sleep) greatly subsided. It seemed like it was deeply comforting for her to have this absolute, non-negotiable truth to fall back on. We weren’t giving her an arbitrary ‘rule’ — we were just saying this is how it it. So maybe try the ‘beds are for sleeping’ line, or say ‘we all sleep in beds’ or something like that. It may be comforting and help her stop the madness. Good luck! (2.5-year-olds are so trying, aren’t they? Wonderful, delightful, but MAN THE DRAMAS!!!)

  20. Susan Apr 09 at 6:24 pm Reply Reply

    I agree with the idea to shut her door and only open it after she has gone to bed – we actually turned the doorknob around on our son’s bedroom door so the little push button lock is on the outside (also prevents him from locking himself in his room). It took a few weeks to totally sink in, but now, ~6 months later, he stays in his room with his books and stuffed animals (and when he doesn’t, we just threaten to lock the door).

    By the time one or both of us are ready to go to bed, he’s asleep (in his bed, in the closet, or right in front of the door so we have to shove him a little to get in the room!) and we tuck him in, then leave the door slightly ajar.

    Also, we hung this light over his bed – some nights he doesn’t even want me to read to him, he just snuggles in and looks at his books by himself: http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/50010879/

    We’re about to transition his 20 month old brother to a toddler bed, and I’m dreading going through it all again – but it will be SO NICE to not have any more cribs to deal with.

  21. Emily B Apr 09 at 7:47 pm Reply Reply

    Another thing to add to Amy’s suggestion–seems like a lot of times getting out of bed repeatedly at night is also a “symptom” of wanting more attention from parents, whether it’s positive or negative attention.  (And that’s why part of the solution is returning her to bed WITHOUT giving that attention.)  With a new baby in the house I wonder whether that could be a big part of the motivation.  One idea would be to institute the idea of “special time” one on one, ideally with each parent, 10 minutes once or twice a day where you just interact with your daughter and play what she wants to play.  This has worked wonders with my now 5yo son since we started doing it when he was around 3.  I find that spending around 20 minutes giving him my undivided attention each day is amazing for the payoff it gives–he’s more willing to play on his own when I’m doing something else, he doesn’t do crazy things to try to get our attention, and bedtime is relatively trouble-free (he went through the same leaving-the-bed routine for awhile and we nearly had to admit ourselves to the funny farm, it was so crazy-making).  It doesn’t happen every day without fail because sometimes life happens, but that just means I do notice a real difference between the days we do it vs. the days he misses that time with me!

  22. stacy Apr 30 at 11:07 am Reply Reply

    I’d cut her afternoon sleep WAYYY back — to an hour, and no sleep later than 2pm.  I think she’s probably just not all that tired.

    That said, when I put my kid in her big girl bed, it was great for a month.  Then the creeping back out at bedtime started.

    We did the “back to bed” technique that Amy and Supernanny advocate.  It was MADDENING but it WORKED. Seriously, I did hold the door closed when we were going on HOUR TWO of marching her back to bed. She had an absolute FIT and for many days this became the bargaining chip “If you don’t stay in bed, I will hold the door closed” and she’d pop right back in.  
    Now, a few months later, she’s out of her room a couple times in the first 30 mins of bedtime, needing “a drink of water” needing “to go pee-pee” etc. etc. Last night it was “I am missing something!” me: “What are you missing?” her: “Something” ….. :/

    But anyway it is infuriating the back to bed thing, but it works. Get a chair and a glass of wine, and take turns every 20-30 minutes with your husband.  It’s going to be a long week….

    good luck!

  23. Christine Aug 12 at 12:17 am Reply Reply

    Hate to disagree, but its been more than two months and this hasn’t worked. My 2 year old still cries until 11 so don’t feel bad if this doesn’t work for you.

  24. Amita Dec 18 at 7:47 am Reply Reply

    My almost three year old wakes up in the middle of the night crying for me and then I have to sit in her room for almost an hour sometimes until she sleeps. She has moved to the toddler bed in her room which she shares with her older sister 10 days ago. Last night the crying was so loud her older sister was woken up and had trouble falling back to sleep. am I doing the right thing sitting there and is 2 weeks a good time for this transition and night crying for me to stop?

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