Q: How do I get our 2-year-old to sleep in his “big-boy bed”? He fell out of his crib so, sadly, we can’t keep him in there anymore. He would sleep 10-12 hours silently in there. Now he wakes up in the middle of the night or will not go to sleep for an hour or two after bedtime. He wanders around and wants to sleep on the floor of our room or his room. This morning we woke up to find him at the foot of the bed — we had thought it was the dog. We have tried the silent back-to-bed approach, and that can go on for an hour or more, with lots of screaming on his part. We have tried bribery in the form of sticker charts and treats. Some nights are great, but every third night or so is a nightmare. Any thoughts would be welcomed.
A: What a classic problem. The fact that he slept well when he was in his crib shows it is not a separation issue, but more of a freedom issue. Freedom is a powerful feeling for a 2-year-old, but there is a time and place for all things and bedtime is not the time or place for too much freedom. This is a good age to work this out.
Here is what I suggest. Have the big-boy bed set up in the same room as the crib. Get him pumped up and excited about sleeping in the big-boy bed, especially at naptime, since you should be better able to endure his inevitable shock-and-awe protest when you’re not pooped. Put him in his big-boy bed. Then if he gets out of the bed, you say, “Hey, buddy — if you get out of your bed again, you will have to go back in your crib.” Hopefully his desire to get to be a big boy will keep him in his new bed. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to follow through and put him back in the crib. If he starts crib-diving again, you can buy a little mesh tent made to go over the top of the crib. Or you can move right on to Plan B.
Plan B involves heavy-duty fortification. You will need to get the baby gate out of storage. You may need to reinforce the gate since he may be able to kick it down or spidey-crawl over it. It may help to use two gates, and use hinges or eye screws to secure them to the doorframe. Be sure to offer lots of encouragement, telling him, “Night-night, you are all right in your room. But if you get out of bed, we will have to put the gate up.”
In the event you have to put the gate up, you should expect some screaming at the gate for a few nights. Also, be prepared for the likely occurrence that he will fall asleep a few times in front of the gate. You can put him back in his bed when he is asleep. You may feel like a prison warden at first, but that’s OK. It will get better.
Some parents choose to close the door instead of using gates — we just never had doors that closed in our old houses. We once had to push a portable dishwasher in front of the door of one of our particularly skilled climbers who was only 18 months old when he escaped from the crib — and who could foil any gate. Anyhow, with all of these measures, it just takes awhile for your little guy to realize the main point of this lesson: Resistance is futile. He will be staying in his room one way or another —it might as well be on the comfortable bed.
Matt Thompson is a pediatrician at the Kids Clinic in Spokane.