Keeping Toddlers In Their Beds
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.
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/ ThinkstockPublished April 6, 2012. Last updated March 12, 2018.