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Toddler won't stay in big kid bed

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Dear Dr. Markham,
If you can help with a method to help my once very good sleeper to get back to that now that he's in a bigger bed, I would be most appreciative.

My son is 2 years, 9 months old. His sister is 8 months old. He slept with me until he was around a year old when it had become too difficult on both of us. At this point we "sleep trained" and for a year and a half he has slept consistently from 7pm-7am. Now that he has moved himself to the toddler bed in his room (it was in his room for quite a long time and he eventually started to crawl out of his crib to sleep in the bed) and he has learned that he has the freedom to leave the bed, and the bedroom, whenever he likes, we all dread bedtime.

I don't know what to do, what approach to take, and how to put some boundaries around bedtime without resorting to what I consider aggressive methods like locking the door.

Please help! --S.


Dear S,
This is very common with the transition to the Toddler bed. Kids love the new-found freedom and test the limits. This is a big move for them and can make them insecure. The most important thing is to be patient and calm and keep reinforcing the limit that it is bedtime. As I suspect you already know, locking the door would almost certainly backfire, ignite insecurities, and damage your relationship with your son.

The challenge is that he needs to develop the habit of going to sleep in the big bed, just as he did in the crib. That's a whole new skill. My method involves your staying with him to teach him this skill, which strengthens your relationship and his sense of security. As a result, he begins to fall asleep by himself and sleep all night. No fallout like nightmares, separation anxiety, or rebelliousness.

I recommend sitting in the room while he falls asleep, so he doesn't need to get out of bed to find you and so that you can remind him verbally to stay in bed if he starts to get out. This eases the transition and lets him learn to fall asleep in the new bed. Soon he will go to sleep easily and you can leave the room after your goodbye ritual and let him fall asleep by himself.

Start by giving him a nightly choice of whether he wants to sleep in the crib or bed. When he chooses the bed, say "And what do we do in the bed? We stay in the bed and lie down and sleep, right? Can you do that? If you can do that, you can sleep in the bed."

Reassure him that you will help him learn to sleep in the big kid bed by staying nearby. Stay as close to the bed as you need to. To start, you may need to stay close enough to touch or even cuddle him. Then gradually reduce the amount of touch so that he can eventually fall asleep without touching you; that way he won't wake up in the night looking for you.

Just sit there, being boring. If he tries to get out of bed, say "It's bedtime, you need to stay in bed" and gently return him to bed. If he tells you he "just can't sleep" tell him the rule is that he has to at least pretend to sleep. Ask him to show you how long he can pretend to sleep. Once kids pretend, they are usually out within minutes.

Keep your attitude positive, respectful, and detached. I recommend an IPOD so that you can be listening to something else and not jumping out of your own skin with boredom or resentment.

Give him lots of recognition when he does fall asleep in his own bed without trying to get out, and even for progress in the right direction. ("I notice that I only had to remind you twice to stay in bed last night. I am so proud of you. Soon you will remember all by yourself.")

You probably want to start with a toddler bed that has guardrails, which will make him more secure. It is important to make sure you use as many things from the crib as possible (blankets, for instance) so that he feels comfortable in the new bed. Leaving the crib in the room may also be comforting, for now.

It helps most kids to have a regular bedtime routine that includes music. You might check out the section on this site on Toddlers and sleep for more info on this. There is also more info for you in the article on Transitioning from the Crib to the Toddler Bed.

Within a few days of your sitting near him, he will be falling asleep without trying to get out of his bed, and you can begin moving closer to the door, and then finally outside it, while he falls asleep. And you'll have your evenings back!

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