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Bedtime Meltdowns & Manipulation

Bedtime Meltdowns & Manipulation

By Amalah

Amy, I’m at a loss.

My son just turned two, and he’s a tall, lanky thing. His crib is at its lowest setting and he’s fully capable of hiking a leg over and escaping. He only tries it when I’m trying to put him to bed (which, incidentally, is a nightmarish hour-long ordeal).

He’s too tall to stay contained in a crib, but if I converted his crib to a toddler bed, he’d never go to bed on his own. He’d climb all over everything (like he already does), and break a limb or two.

This terrifies me. Frankly, so does bedtime itself. Would a daily breakdown help?

He’s up at 6:30, naps at 11:30/12:00 for about 2 hours. Sometimes less, often just a hair more. Bedtime starts around 7pm.

There’s usually a bath, then pjs (don’t get me started on his opinions on which pjs he wears), books (he can never get enough), kisses, and eventually he closes the door (he can reach from his crib — I told you he was tall).

Once we’re out of the room, he’s fine. Falls asleep on his own. It’s just getting him to let us leave that’s a problem. Tears, climbing, clawing like his crib is full of lava… I’m exhausted. It’s 7:45 pm right now, and I’m ready to skip dinner and go to sleep myself.

Mostly, I’m scared that if I don’t accommodate his cries for one more book, he’ll launch himself out of his crib and really, seriously hurt himself.

What on earth am I doing wrong?

Thanks,
Asleep-on-the-couch

Okay, we’ve a whole bunch of things to troubleshoot here, so forgive me if I end up throwing too many “possible” solutions out there. I’ll try to focus on what I SUSPECT is the root of the (multiple) problems.

First, his schedule: I would move bedtime forward. He’s waking up at 6:30 and taking his only nap fairly early in the day, so by waiting until 7 to start his ( overly long) bedtime routine, he’s probably overtired. (AKA the source of All Bedtime Evil.) Try starting bedtime around 6:30 instead, with a goal of you leaving the room promptly at 7.

Second, his routine. I am dead serious about you leaving at 7, no matter what.  You’re in charge. You’re allowed to leave. Tell yourself that bedtime is going to be a 30-minute thing and stick to it. No more “one more book” — he picks out a set number before getting in bed and that’s it.  Maybe buy him a visual timer of some kind and set it to 30 minutes. That’s when Mommy and Daddy will leave the room and it’s time to sleep.

The meltdowns are likely related to the moment of separation (since he’s immediately fine afterwards and goes right to sleep), so think of this as similar to the kind of separation anxiety kids experience at daycare/preschool drop-off. Anxiety leading up the moment, a dramatic display of crying/begging/clinging, and then an almost miraculous change in mood the minute their parent actually leaves. Parents who indulge the dramatics, or who try to stay with/reason with their child, end up just making things worse  — usually just prolonging the anxiety and crying. Then they give up and leave anyway, while feeling like an awful, irritated failure. (Like you, post-bedtime!) Instead, a calm, consistent daily routine and a quick exit is a MUCH better strategy.

My youngest and I have a script in the car (“I’m going to miss you, Mom.” “I’ll miss you too, but…” “You’ll come back.“) and a set goodbye routine for inside his classroom (hug, kiss, high five, fistbump). Then I leave, quickly.  The repetition and predictability is comforting to him, and after a couple weeks of this our school separations so much easier. Now he runs to the activity tables without a second look at me.

You’re going to blend the same idea into his bedtime. The “one more book” thing seems like it makes him happy, but you might actually be prolonging the underlying anxiety/sadness/fear. (Does he start getting antsy or prematurely upset as you near the end of the book, by any chance?)

Have him pick out his PJs in the morning (or any convenient point in the day) and lay them out himself.  Those are the ones he wears after his bath, with lots of praise for picking out such a great cool pair all by himself. Set the visual timer for 7 pm/30 minutes. Send him to the bookshelf to pick out three books (or have him pick them earlier, or pick them out yourself if that becomes a stalling tactic). You read those books and tell him no, that’s all he has time for tonight, because it’s time for kisses.

If he screams or tantrums at all, YOU LEAVE. YOU IGNORE. YOU DO NOT ENGAGE. Welcome to toddler tantrumhood, where playing along will get you absolutely nowhere. Other than crazyhood, that is. You stick the routine, you give him a kiss, say you love him and goodnight and EXIT.

As for your safety concerns, a child who can climb out of a crib should honestly no longer be in a crib. I mean, I can’t really advise anything otherwise. A bed and a really thoroughly child-proofed room are going to be your safest options, even though I know, I KNOW, it adds a whole other monkey wrench into bedtime. But if you’re really only accommodating his tantrums out of the fear that he’ll fling himself out of the crib and hurt himself…well, sounds like it might be time to make a change. Every parent on earth has probably said some variation on “my toddler will NEVER go to sleep if I move him/her to a bed!” but eventually, we all have to suck it up and make it happen.

In the meantime, you could try an air mattress on the floor (or some other soft place to land) for a night or two and see if your fears of angering him so much he actually does try to exit the crib are warranted, or if he simply calms down after you’re gone on his own. Either way, start childproofing his bedroom. Bolt all the other furniture to the wall, remove anything that can’t be bolted or he could use to pile, stack or climb on top of (ottomans, large toys, boxes, anything wheeled or ride-on, etc.). Remove any diaper ointments, body lotions, medicines, etc.

I know it’s really, really hard when your child is screaming and crying for you.But in this case, giving in to his meltdown is counterproductive: He’ll be fine once you leave. So you need to leave. At best, he’s just overtired and trying to manipulate you and get what he wants through a tantrum. (Hey, it’s what 2-3 year olds do.) At worst, he’s struggling with separation anxiety, and what he really needs isn’t “one more book” or “15 more minutes of reassurances” — he needs a set, consistent routine that you stick to until he finds comfort in the predictability of that routine.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 Ama...

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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Comments

  • MR

    What appropriate timing for this letter. Yesterday FB popped up an old memory of a collage of pics I took with our baby monitor. It was the first time she was “going to sleep” in her big girl bed, and shows her trying to open the door (I had to hold it closed), and jumping and running around the room, and then eventually, falling asleep… on the floor. Both my girls spent several nights sleeping on the floor before moving back to the bed. So, don’t be surprised if your son does that. It is all perfectly normal and part of the process. 🙂

  • Stephefanie

    If he’s already climbing out of his crib, then then the crib is not keeping him in bed. Sure, there will be some adjustment to the new perception of freedom but it’s the same freedom he has now only without the scary 4 foot drop and inability to get back in bed when he’s done tantruming/exploring. I got my leg stuck in my crib when I was 2- pretty sure that was closely followed to my brother moving to the top bunk of the bunk beds and me to the bottom…
    Haha my baby isn’t even born yet but I’m already thinking about this. Currently the crib is in the same room as the home office so when dear baby gets big enough to get out of the crib herself, it’s basically spelling  the end of our time in this little house. 

  • ENH

    Try adding a quick poem or prayer at the end of the last book that you say every night. We read however many books time allows, and than always, always end with a quick silly bedtime poem, in the middle of which we turn out lights.  After the lights go out, we put the kids in their beds while we finish the poem. But the poem is the transition from reading together to actually in bed, lights out, then mom/dad leave as soon as the poem ends. It effectively ended the “one more book” cry to keep us in the room bc we don’t leave after the final book, but the poem signals the end of the bedtime routine and mom/dad leaving.  

  • Dani

    My son went through this around the same age.  Seemed PETRIFIED of his crib.  We rejiggered our bedtime routine to do two books in a chair in his room (he had a tiny room but we moved it in there for this express purpose, because even getting into the room was becoming a struggle), and one book IN bed. We then said mom or dad will sit in the chair for five minutes while he got settled (no talking or anything, just to ease him into sleep time).  It worked after a few nights.  Went from crazy clinginess and screaming, to excitement about picking out his books and laying two out on the chair and sliding one between the slats of his crib.  I think the book IN bed really helped him get snuggled up and settled while we were still there, engaging.  It’s been, 9 or 10 months and we still do some variation of this.  Sounds like your guy may not need/benefit from the 5 minutes of someone sitting in his room, but for mine it allayed his fears and it wasn’t a big deal for one of us to sit around and listen to a podcast with headphones or dick around on our phones for a few.  It really seemed to ease the transition to his being alone in his room, and thus seemed to make the earlier piece of the routine leading up to the big moment a lot smoother.  It did take a few nights of tears and consistency though!

  • Jenn

    We’ve made “tuck-in time” the last part of the routine, as if I’m saying “it’s party time!” Our schedule and bedtime is very similar to yours, and my daughter gets one book, then two songs after the light is out, and then it’s tuck-in time! I put her down, cover her up, and say “tuck-tuck, tuck-tuck” and then leave while she’s covered with a quick “love you.” We also let her take books and a light into her crib with her, so it’s not a negative thing where she loses all her stuff and her companionship, but just another place to read/play. We do the same sort of thing when she gets antsy about going to daycare: come up with something she can take with her (this morning it was a dirty glove off the floor of the car) to make it ok. 

  • Yes, by all means, if he can climb out of the crib, it’s time to not sleep in a crib. Definitely try a defined routine and an earlier bedtime. If you find that you’re still getting a lot of demands for attention:

    Around this age, my son started asking me to hold him for a while at bedtime- it coincided with transitioning to the toddler room at daycare, so I figured he just needed some extra attention. It’s become part of the routine- we turn out the light, sit in the rocker, and snuggle for a while before I put him in the bed.

    He frequently declares the end of snuggle time himself, and when I have to call it and he protests, I remind him that I was just holding him and now it’s sleeping time. I figure… a little more sleepy snuggles (vs. scamming more playtime) is a nice thing for both of us and something we can sustain. If he tries to get down or protest that he wants to go play, I remind him that his choices are: Mommy holds him, or he can go in the crib. (Fortunately, mine isn’t climbing out yet.) 

  • Sam

    Your son may surprise you when you switch from the crib.  Like yours,  my son was climbing out of the crib at 18 months so we converted to a toddler bed. Then for the next year it was like there was some invisible wall and he’d never get out of bed until we came into the room.  Even if he woke up crying,  he wouldn’t get out of bed. It was silly, but we still child proofed the heck out of his room anyway. 

    • Yep, I was just going to come say the same thing! My second was like that and never left her bed, but my first would lie down until we left, then get up and get a toy and take it back to his bed. I’d watch on the video monitor as he’d read some books to himself or talk to his teddy bear, and then he’d eventually just fall asleep on his own! Both kiddos were between 18-22 months when we turned their cribs into toddler beds with rails, and there wasn’t a ton to play with in the room anyhow, but we just made it EXTRA super safe and then figured it’s no big deal if they want to explore a little bit as long as they’re calm 😉 

  • Laura A

    My toddler did the SAME THING a few months ago. We still have flare ups occasionally, but as Amalah the Wise says, routine routine routine. Heck, my kid is so routine driven that if I change the length/content of my nighttime farewell it can send her into a tailspin. 

    Also, depending on the crib, sometimes you can detach the spring support and place it on the floor within the crib structure. In our crib, the mattress is still a few inches off the floor due to the frame, still structurally sound, and no dangerous gaps in rails or anything.

    After we got past the crib tantrumming (hers was over naptime) she quit trying to climb out, and with our modifications it’s too tall at this point. However, any hint of climbing out and we’re either converting to a big girl bed or just putting the crib bedding down on the floor. Look up Montessori bed, its a good option if you’re worried that he’ll fall from a larger bed.

  • Elizabeth

    Converse question:  If our bedtime routine is 2 songs, three prayers, and out of there, are we screwing up our kid (2 years 3 months)?  It’s 10 minutes, tops.  He talks/sings to his raccoon lovey for maybe 5 minutes after we leave, and then goes peacefully to sleep.  Is bedtime supposed to be a thing?  We’ve played and read books all day; he’s not neglected.

    • Vickie

      Our kids’ bedtime rituals were much less elaborate than most of those mentioned. So if you have something short and sweet, you are in good shape, in my opinion. 

      I think you bring up a good point. For some families, this is a major time of connection if they have been apart most of the day. For other families, they have been together most of the day and it is simply bed time.

      Bedtime for my youngest, at age three, was playing kings in the corner with me. Yes, a card game. It worked. We played one game every night, on our king size bed and then she scooted down the hall, got in bed, went to sleep. She is now 18 nod graduating from high school this spring. 

    • Hahaha, I think if your kids are sleeping, you’re doing something right! 😉 I’d think the important part would be to make sure your child gets read to at some point, which most people do at bedtime but if you do earlier in the day, then you’re good to go! 🙂

    • Yeah, like Vickie said, it’s really what works for your family. My little guy spends the day in daycare, so on a weekday we only have a few hours together (some of which is spent cooking dinner, etc.) So bedtime is a little bit more about filling up the affection tank, as it were. If yours is with you all day, then he just may not need that at bedtime. Is he happy? Is he sleeping? GOOD JOB, MAMA. 🙂

  • Allison

    Oh man bedtime. My kids take the cake with bedtime antics. We have tried EVERYTHING anyone has ever suggested for bedtime and we still don’t have kids who go to bed nice. Just remember that he is learning and exploring his world and testing his limits. Keep it consistent and he will be fine.

  • Annie

    My now three year old was horrible at the goodnight part where I actually had to leave. So much like Amy’s advice dripping her son off at daycare we started the “hug, kiss and a tickle” as we turned off the light and left. She was so excited about getting to tickle her parents that she didn’t get upset and it completely changed that part of bedtime. Now she’s a bit older the “hug, kiss and a tickle” part comes earlier in the night but it’s still a great transition for us.

  • Sarah A

    This is just a small suggestion and you don’t say whether you do this or not, but I had sort of a “duh” moment with my twin girls when I started covering them up with their blankets instead of just putting them in their cribs and peacing out. In other words, tucking them in. It’s a good last step in the bedtime routine and then they’re ready to fall asleep.

  • Julie

    When we moved our kids from the crib to the toddler bed, after toddler-proofing the room, we also put one of those childproof doorknob covers on the inside of their room – so they couldn’t open the door and wander off.

  • Claire

    We did a “ticket” system with our oldest daughter at that age.  She got three tickets with her three books (I just cut them out of construction paper and drew a book on them) and after I read each book, she gave me a ticket.  Same with stories or songs if you do those.  Once the tickets were gone, we left the room, and it worked like a charm.  I also have found that repetition of a “script” helps – every night, we say to our two year old, “Lay down and i”ll tuck you in.  I’ll be back to check on you in a few minutes.  When will I check?” and she responds “few minutes, Mommy.”  It seems to help for her to know what I will say and what the answer is, every night  the same.   It’s the same concept as the prayer/poem idea above, which I think sounds lovely.  

  • Alexa

    How do you get your child to stay in the room if you set that hard limit? My son will just continue to come out of the room and procrastinate in anyway possible rather than going to bed. I start the routine around 730 (he’s 3) and i can’t get him down until almost 10!