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2 year old refuses to sleep in own bed

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We have a 2 yr daughter who has been making bedtime very difficult for us. Originally we converted her crib into the day bed and she loved it. Our bedtime routine was great and working very well . . . and then we went on vacation - camping. The only option was for her to sleep next to us on her air mattress, which after 2 weeks led to it being a habit.

Once we got home, the bedtime routine was shot. We didn't have much chance to correct it because 1 week after we got home she had her scheduled surgery (tonsils, adenoids, new tubes - long story) and we were told by the doctor to pamper her and keep her from screaming. This further screwed up the bedtime routine since we would let her fall asleep in our bed and then transfer her to her own.

As things stand now, she knows that we won't let her on our bed anymore (small victory!) but refuses to sleep in her own bed. Instead she prefers to sleep on the couch - if she falls asleep and we transfer her to her own bed, she will wake up in the middle of the night and either cry out to us and ask to go on the couch, or just go back on the couch. What's the best way to handle this and reestablish her bedtime routine?


Dear Paul,
This is a classic case of your daughter having gotten used to sleeping in your bed or next to you and finding her own bed a pale substitute. You should also know that toddlers who move from cribs to big beds often have problems adjusting initially, even without the complications you describe. Not to worry.

First, it won't hurt her to sleep on the couch for awhile. There is no rule about where two year olds need to sleep, and my philosophy is that the best place for kids to sleep is wherever gets them and their parents the most sleep. So it may not be a permanent solution, but as a transitional one, there is no deadline to move her. Hopefully, that reduces everyone's anxiety.

Second, the cure may not be immediate, but you can definitely lure her back to her own bed and keep her there. The fact that she is willing to sleep by herself on the couch is already a victory, as you say, because she is at least able to sleep by herself, rather than waking up because she doesn't sense another warm body.

Because she is willing to sleep by herself on the couch, I suspect that your daughter is putting her foot down about this not so much out of fear but the desire to have some say in her own life. This is more important to her than we can imagine. She is grieving about not being allowed to sleep with you anymore, and while she has accepted your mandate, she is not about to give in by sleeping in her own bed. She will only be willing to do that if you can make her bed more enticing than the couch, and if she feels like it is her choice.

So what can you do? Let it be completely her choice where she falls asleep, so she feels in control and stops engaging in a power struggle with you, but make it a no-brainer that she will want to sleep in her own bed. How?

1. Tell her that it is completely her choice where she falls asleep, but that you do have to move her once she falls asleep because the couch is too noisy, cold, bright, whatever. I know this may keep you embroiled in a bit of a power struggle, but sooner or later she will relax into her own bed and find it is too much trouble to go back to the couch. In the meantime, you can let her choose where to fall asleep, so she feels some control, but move her to her own room so that you have use of your living room, and also so that she gets used to sleeping in her own room.

2. What if she wakes up in the night and insists on going back to the couch? If she doesn't bother you, and just goes there on her own, I wouldn't make a big deal about it. But if she wakes you up in the middle of the night, then you have to make a hard decision. It might not be worth moving her back to her room. Or you might have to institute a reward program, where she can choose where to fall asleep but you move her to her room, and every morning that she wakes up in her own room she gets some sort of small reward.

3. Make her own bed a much more appealing choice for her to fall asleep by making it special and cozy. It is possible that a daybed is just too big for her since she is only two, and that she doesn't feel secure there (although it is hard to imagine a couch being more cozy.) If offering her the crib back is an option, you might want to offer that, although I doubt she will want it. But definitely consider how to make her daybed a cozy, special little place. Some parents report success with those little tents that go over the bed. Particularly since she recently experienced camping, she might love a "tent" bed. You might offer to move her mattress onto the floor and put furniture around it, including a bookcase facing the bed, to make it super cozy. Toddlers love caves and small spaces.

4. Conduct her bedtime routine in her room. Tuck all her stuffed animals into her bed. Read to her there. Use a music player that is plugged in there and never gets moved into another room, but that she has control over from her bed. Make it so inviting that moving to the couch feels like a deprivation.

5. Make the couch uninviting. Keep her favorite blankets and animals on her bed (although of course she can sleep with her lovey.) Make sure you are nowhere near the couch so she doesn't feel like she's getting more time with you by being on the couch.

6. Tell her that it is her choice, but if she goes to sleep in her own bed, you will stay nearby while she falls asleep. (I am assuming from your letter that you do not lie down with her while she falls asleep.) Don't lie with her, but sit right next to her bed (you can read with a flashlight) while she falls asleep. Doesn't this set up a bad habit? Yes, but one you can easily wean her from by moving your chair further and further away from her bed and toward the door. It's a lot easier to break this habit than the couch habit. And one of the reasons she has chosen the couch is to be in the middle of things and nearer to you, at least in her mind. This shifts that benefit (your presence) to her own bed, making it a much more attractive choice for her.

7. If there is any other reward that would give preference to her bed, pull out all the stops. For instance, "Honey, we usually read one story. But when you sleep in your own bed we don't have to take time to move to the couch, so we can read two stories. Do you want two stories and sleep in your own wonderful bed, or one story and sleep on the couch?"

Your daughter sounds like a smart little girl. Once she gets no reward out of sleeping on the couch (i.e., you aren't nearby and you aren't fighting her about it, so she isn't winning a power struggle) and she doesn't have anything to prove (it really is her choice where she falls asleep), I predict she'll be happily back in her usual bedtime routine in her own bed. Good luck!

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