When Your Kid Won’t Stay in Bed

Toddler bedtime battles

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This post is by guest author Tracy Cutchlow, who is a smart cool person, and also the author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science (and What I’’ve Learned So Far) and editor of the bestselling books Brain Rules for Baby and Brain Rules. As a journalist, she has worked for MSN Money and the Seattle Times. She lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter. Get more of Tracy’s parenting tips.
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One night, my husband and I relaxed on the couch after we put our toddler to bed, as usual, in her crib. Suddenly: “Hi, mommy!” We looked over. There she was, standing in the living room, quite proud of herself. At 22 months old, our toddler had climbed out of her crib.

Recovering from our surprise, we put her back to bed with a laugh. She’s a climber! we said. We’d figured this day would come. We had an easy solution: put her in her sleep sack. Surely then she couldn’t get her leg up over the railing.

“Hi, mommy!”

You know how the minute something goes well with your kid, you imagine that thing (finally!) will go well forever? Bedtime had been going well for us, minus occasional rough patches, for about a year. Our daughter had been fairly easy to put to bed after a short routine, and she’d been sleeping through the night since she was 11 months old. So we were feeling entitled. We’d gotten smug. (Naps are a whole other story.)

Now, every night, a bleary-eyed baby was stumbling into the living room, unsure how to handle her newfound freedom. And we were just as bewildered.

Of course, I Googled it. Once your kid climbs out of the crib, I learned, you should convert it to a toddler bed so she won’t fall and hurt herself. We didn’t think our daughter would fall, but we thought at least if she had a toddler bed, she’d be able to get back into bed on her own.

She could. But she didn’t.

Instead, she’d open her bedroom door and make random requests: “Hungry. [Insert food she’d declined to eat at dinner]. Milk! I want to sleep with Mommy and Daddy. Listen to music? Ride my bicycle! I want to walk outside.”

Naps were not happening; she wasn’t sleeping through the night anymore.

Round and round we’d go. We’d put baby in bed; moments later, she’d pop out. We tried various responses: gently returning her to bed again and again. More food (well … she didn’t eat much at dinner …). A stint on the potty. Ignoring her. Counting to three. Holding the door closed. Until I’d had it and would yell, “Get back in your bed!” and firmly dump her there.

Which didn’t work, either.

Desperate, we started laying down on the floor next to our baby’s bed until she fell asleep. That worked. But it was also disruptive to our own sleep, and it wasn’t teaching her how to stay in bed on her own.

How to Get Our Mobile Toddler Back in Bed?

It was obvious that our toddler didn’t need any of the food or toys she was requesting, and our attention just reinforced her behavior. We needed to stop providing that kind of attention. Maybe she was too young to have the self-control to stay in her room; maybe her physical coordination was getting ahead of her mental ability. We needed to remove the option of opening the door. Maybe our bedtime routine—laying her down with a bottle and kissing her head—was too short, and bed felt like a place where she got left behind while we continued our evening.

Based on these guesses, we made a new plan:

We put a lock on the outside of the door (with baby’s help). I let her test the handle to feel the difference between locked and unlocked. I told her she wouldn’t be able to open the door when it was locked, and this would help her stay in her room at night. We would open the door in the morning. Essentially, we turned the whole room into her crib.

We lengthened our bedtime routine, reading baby three stories as she lay in bed. My husband snuggled in close, so she’d get more cuddle time. Then we said good night.

Baby immediately climbed out of bed.

This time, we did our own version of “fading”: we sat outside the door, instead of laying on her floor, to comfort her.

“I want Mommy to lay on the floor,” she cried at the door. “Sad baby!”

“Aww, sad baby,” I replied. “Yes, Mommy is right here on the floor. When we’re sleepy, we lay down. Do you want to lay on the floor or climb into bed?” She wandered back to bed. We repeated this a few times. “I’m going to sing you a song, sweetie, to help you stay in bed,” I said.

My song calmed her crying for a bit. When she cried again, I sang again. If she said, “I want Mommy to lay on the floor,” I repeated, “Yes, I’m right here on the floor. I’ll sing you a song.”

This lasted for half an hour as she wandered between the door and her bed, crying off and on. “Get me OUT of here!” she said at one point. I tried not to laugh. I sang to her probably a half-dozen times as she woke up throughout the night. Each instance took less and less singing to calm her.

The next night, she stayed in bed from 7:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.—the usual.

Lessons learned?

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  1. Solve the problem, not just the symptom.

    To solve the problem, we couldn’t just be indignant that baby wasn’t following our orders (although we were). We had to take a step back and try to figure out why baby might be doing this. Locking the door wasn’t enough; I tried that for a couple of naps and was met with screeching. We needed to address the underlying issues — what we guessed was baby’s desire to spend more time with us or her sudden dislike of being left in bed.

  2. Make sure it works for you, too.

    Be willing to back out of an unsustainable solution, like laying on the floor was for us, and start over.

  3. Try your plan for a week.

    Once we decided on our plan of empathizing and comforting from outside the door, we had to use it many times throughout the night. If we’d said after the first 15 minutes, or after the first middle-of-the-night wakeup, “Well, she’s still not staying in bed; that didn’t work,” we would have given up too soon.

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We didn’t get smug for at least a week. But bedtime was indeed back on track.
{Photo Credit: Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press}

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Zero to FiveTracy’s book is a great parenting resource that touches on all the hot parenting topics that cross your path: food, play, sleep, positive discipline, etc. I don’t say that because I’m mentioned in it (WOOHOO!) or because she supported my Kicstarter campaign (YAY!) but because it’s true. She’s also kind enough to offer a special price to all Troublesome Tots readers through 11/28/2014 – get 50% off the ebook by using code “troublesometots” at checkout. Or if you’re still a paper reader like me, you can get 24% off a hardback copy at Amazon.
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