Child Caring

When little one keeps popping out of bed

Dear Barbara,

We recently transitioned my 26-month old to a twin bed (she had been climbing out of her crib). She loves the idea of it, and once she falls asleep, is fine all night long. However she hysterically freaks out if we don't lay down with her until she's completely asleep - which takes anywhere from 30 min to two hours. She was an excellent sleeper in her crib - would allow us to put her down awake and would fall asleep very quickly on her own. When she was younger we did end up letting her "cry it out" which was emotionally trying but did work! Is that type of method recommended for toddles as well - especially when she can get out of the bed and roam around the room at will? (Her room is childproofed) How else can/should we get her to go sleep on her own? Please help!

From: Exhausted, Medford, MA
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Dear Exhausted,

Because she's still young, your options are limited.

1. Put up a gate at her bedroom door. That keeps her safe (you've said the room is childproof, right?) and sets the limit that she can't leave the bedroom. Some parents don't like this because it feels zoo-like, but if the alternative is that you get frustrated and angry because she is popping out of her room, that's not going to help the situation, either, and I personally couldn't tolerate locking the bedroom door. Tell her, "The rule is, you have to stay in your room." Some children will play quietly and end up falling asleep on the floor. Make a little nest for her so she can be comfy.

2. Wean her from needing you to go to sleep. After all, that's the true goal. This is a process that takes time -- probably weeks -- so don't start it unless you are prepared to follow through. The first step is putting a chair next to the bed and staying there until she's just on the verge of sleep. This is important. If you wait until she falls asleep, if/when she awakens, she'll expect you to still be there. She needs to be able to fall asleep under the same conditions that will exist if she wakes up during the night. (BTW, this is the key to getting infants to fall back to sleep, too; if you rock them before bed, put them down when they are on the verge of sleep, but not soundly sleeping.) Do this for three, four, how every many nights until she trusts that you aren't leaving too quickly. Step 2: move the chair inches from the bed. Repeat the process. Succeeding steps involve moving the chair farther away until you are at the door to the room and then, literally, out the doorway. By then, with any luck, she won't care so much.

The main reason the popping out of bed behavior escalates with young children is because, as our unhappiness and frustration builds, they feel insecure, unsafe and unhappy. So they act out even more, in a magical-thinking kind of logic: If I get out of bed this time, will mom still be unhappy? The antidote is to clearly, matter-of-factly state and re-state the limit, and help them see how they can meet it.

So your unhappiness with her makes her feel insecure, unsafe and unhappy herself, which pushes her to act out even more.

You stop the cycle by setting a limit that makes her feel safe again. That could be the gate. I know many parents don't like a gate; it feels zoo-y. I prefer it to a locked door.

I know you said you don't want to go back to the crib. That's the other alternative I would offer. Here's what I wrote after an interview with pediatrician and sleep specialist Jodi Mindell about this: "For a child who is truly miserable with the bed, for whom bedtime is a nightly struggle, and who has gone from being a good sleeper to a bad one, Mindell would bring the crib back.