When Your Toddler Doesn't Stay in the Big-Kid Bed
My 2 year-old son is still having a challenging time staying in his bed sleeping. He transitioned from a crib to a bed a few months ago. Since that time he tends to wake up at 12:00, 2:00, and 5:00. Can you please advise on strategies that you use in helping them to stay put and sleep well? - submitted by A.V., 7/18/18
Great question, and pretty composed for a sleep-deprived parent. I think this is the most challenging sleep problem of all - a kid under age 3 who's not captive in the crib anymore. He's too old for the classic "cry it out" sleep training, but too young to respond to tricks such as a bedtime pass that work great for kids over 3. But there are always things we can do.
First, hang onto that crib like grim death. There's a common sentiment out there that kids should move to a toddler bed at age 2, and I couldn't disagree more. They like their cribs and they can't come out and find you. Of course, if you're lucky enough to have an acrobat who is consistently getting out of the crib, that's not a safe situation and you have to transition to the bed. Once your child is in a bed, he suddenly has freedom to roam, and 2 year-olds don't have much impulse control. So keep his room boring. Toys should be kept in another room. If space is an issue, put toys away at night in snap-top bins. Keep the room fairly dark, but with a dim nightlight so he can move around safely.
We all pop out of our sleep cycles every three hours (roughly what your son is doing), but most of us get really good at soothing ourselves back to sleep before we're very conscious. The things we use to do this soothing are called sleep associations. For us this might include our pillow, the smell of our sheets, and a partner lying next to us. But sometimes toddlers develop other sleep associations that are more disruptive, such as being next to you or drinking some milk. So if you are laying next to him at bedtime until he falls asleep, he will absolutely come find you looking for the same thing later in the night. At 2 am, it's understandable why exhausted parents often let kids into their own beds - in the moment, it's a quicker fix for everyone. But it does kick the can down the road and sets up your bed as another problematic sleep association.
So try this - when your 2 year-old shows up at the side of your bed tugging your ear in the middle of the night, walk him quietly and quickly back to his bed, give him a kiss, and get out of there. This isn't the time for songs, a sip of water, or tons of love - those things can be a pretty great incentive to continue the behavior. When you hear the door squeaking 2 minutes later, do the same thing. You literally might be doing this 10-20 times the first few nights, but the message is clear and consistent: you love him but he sleeps in his own bed and he does it by himself. Always.
If your kid is truly scared at night and screaming when you try the above tactic, you need to gradually get him more comfortable with being alone. This is quite a bit more labor-intensive, but can still work well. Tell him that you are going to sit next to his bed (not in it) while he falls asleep. After 2 nights of doing that, move to arm's length from the bed for all your soothings (whether they are at bedtime or in the middle of the night). Then move to the middle of the room, then to the doorway, and then back to your room. Brutal, I know, but sleep deprivation is a brutal problem. Good luck - I promise that someday he'll sleep through the night and it will be glorious!