Bedtime Meltdowns & Manipulation
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?
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.