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Child Caring

Toddlers who won't stay in bed

Hi Barbara -- My 3 1/2-year-old son is an excellent sleeper -- once we can finally get him to stay in bed (he sleeps in a regular twin bed). But over the summer, he figured out how to open his own bedroom door and now we have a terrible struggle with him each night to get him to stay in his room and go to sleep. It happens whether or not he has napped that day, so it doesn't seem to be an issue of bedtime (8 p.m.), although it did coincide with the time when he began to refuse to nap some days. In the mornings, he's exhausted. What do you recommend?

From: Ramona, Natick

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Hi Ramona,

Both pediatric sleep specialist Richard Ferber ("Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, Expanded edition") and pediatrician Harvey Karp ("Happiest Toddler on the Block") agree that the solution is to -- lock your child in his room.

I know, I know.

But it really is what they recommend. Here's from "Happiest Toddler," page 245:

"If your toddler is no longer in a crib....you'll need to put up a barrier to keep him from leaving his room at night. If he can climb over a gate, I recommend putting a hook-and-eye latch on the outside of the door. During the day, show your child that when the door's locked, it won't open. At night, leave a blanket and pillow next to the door because some children leave their beds and fall asleep on the floor once they realize they can't get out."

Ferber, who also prefers to start with a gate, acknowledges head-on that this may cause some parents to blanch. On page 118, he writes:

"...some of the techniques suggested here may seem harsh. But an out-of-control child is not a happy child. A gate will allow you to remain calm and supportive, since you can set limits without physically restraining your child....It is much easier to continue talking to your child in a warm, reassuring and controlled way when you are on opposite sides of a gate than when you are carrying him back to his room kicking and hitting you."

He only shuts the door if a child is too old or too big for a gate, or masters climbing over it, and he never mentions locking it:

"Each time your child leaves his room, take him back and close the door, keeping it closed a little longer than the time before. Because this technique requires the child to be shut behind a closed door, and the goal is to develop control, not fear, we usually start with short times like fifteen seconds and work from there." He has a chart that accompanies this explanation and he spends several pages explaining how to make this work. Ultimately, he says, a child learns "that he can keep the door open all night just by staying in his room."

I don't know anyone who actually has shut a young child behind a door (let alone lock it) but I can imagine using a gate, and I absolutely endorse Ferber's thinking: Children feel safer when they know what the limits are and that there are consequences to breaking them. The child who is popping in and out of his bedroom is beyond limit-testing; he's out of control and asking -- begging -- for you to help him stay where he knows he belongs.

I hope we hear from some parents who have used this technique. Did it work? How hard was it for you to enforce?


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