A parent emailed me with this story, “Over the past week and a half, we have been having serious issues getting our 2-year-old to go to bed, both for naps and for nighttime. We go through her usual routine of brushing teeth, prayers and reading a story, then put her in her bed with her doll/blanket. As soon as we put her in her bed, she starts screaming, jumps up and runs for the door (we have a baby gate on it so we can keep the door open). We leave the room and she keeps screaming bloodcurdling screams wanting to go downstairs and snuggle with us. At a minimum this lasts for half an hour, usually an hour and a half to two hours. For naps we have given in sometimes and she doesn’t take a nap, and for night we take her downstairs until she conks out.”
No easy answer
I get this question all the time, but I’m a bit afraid to answer it. There is no right answer, no one way, no trick that works for every child. And someone somewhere will accuse you of being a bad parent, no matter how you handle your sleep-avoiding toddler.
There are many, many philosophies about what to do with 2-year-olds who don’t want to go to bed. I have 5 children under age 10, and I often work the night shift as a pediatric hospitalist. I’m tired. I think I’ve tried every toddler sleep philosophy out there. I’ve read mountains of pediatric sleep research. Here are my honest conclusions.
Sleep is a need, not a want. You need to do what works for you and your family, so that everyone gets a good rest
Some parents, especially those who follow attachment parenting philosophies, say just let your toddler sleep with you until she wants to sleep alone. Personally, I need my kids to sleep in their own beds so that I can sleep. It’s especially hard to sleep with a toddler when I have an infant in a bedside co-sleeper. The toddler generally wakes up the infant and no one gets enough sleep. Yet I still have at least 1-2 children in bed with me each morning when I wake up. Usually they come down in the night and I just let them stay. It is rare that I let them start a night of sleep in my bed.
There are many methods to get toddlers to stay in bed, including variations on the Ferber method and the camping-out method. Although usually used for infants, you can use variations on these methods with toddlers, too. Read more on these methods of sleep training, and my response to the criticism that these methods may psychologically harm infants and toddlers here.
“100 Walks” method
When teaching a toddler to stay in bed, I usually start with what I call the “100 walks” method. In this method you let the toddler come out of his or her room and then walk them back to bed a zillion times, as many times as it takes. When they get out of bed you don’t get angry or show emotion. Simply say, “It’s time for bed,” take their hand or pick them up, and walk them back to bed. After several nights of 30+ immediate trips back to bed, the toddlers get the point and quit. Many people combine this with a positive reward system, such as a sticker chart for every night that a child stays in bed. Another good reward is a special breakfast for kids who stayed in bed all night.
“Open Door Reward” Method
When I’m just too tired for the “100 walks” method, I use what I call the “open door reward” method. I tell my toddlers that if they stay in their bed they can have the door open. If they get out of bed I will have to close the door so they will stay in their room. If they play in their room (which is lit with a nightlight) I don’t do anything about it—they will fall asleep on the floor quickly. When they cry I go back in every few minutes and briefly say that I love them, and it’s time for bed, and that the door can stay open if they get back in bed. Then I close the door again (unless they get in bed).
I stretch out the intervals of these reassuring check-ins, similar to the Ferber method mentioned above. After a few nights of this they generally stay in bed. This method allows the child to have some control over the situation, so it’s not just a battle of the wills.
Then there’s the Bedtime with the iPad method—or what I call my “Total Mom Fail.” It doesn’t work. (Sadly, I tried it). The blue light from the touch-screen inhibits melatonin release and can keep toddlers up for hours. Even if your child does fall asleep with a touch screen, you are establishing bad sleep habits that can last for life. Resist the temptation and keep touch screens out of your child’s bed.
I don’t recommend the cry-it-out method. I do feel it is just too stressful for toddlers and may interfere with attachment.
Pick a method and stick with it
Pick a toddler sleep method for your family, and stick to it for a while. Don’t be afraid to make exceptions for unique circumstances. For example, I usually don’t lay down with children until they fall asleep (although they ask all the time). I have 5 children and it’s simply impossible to do this for multiple children each night. But there are times when I make exceptions. For example, if a child is overtired and very upset, it is often best to just lie beside them for less than 10 minutes, not talk, and let the child calm down and go to sleep. Overtired children often lack the self-control to calm themselves down for sleep, especially if they are off-schedule, missed a nap, or had an unusually hard day.
Occasionally, when a child is really off schedule, I use melatonin. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that our bodies make that triggers sleep. You can buy it over-the-counter at any drug store, but there is very little research on melatonin use in children, and the side effects can be significant. I think it is fine to use low-dose melatonin supplements for children on a short-term basis (1-5 days) to help re-program their body’s clock if they’ve gotten off their regular sleep schedule. However, I would only do this in consultation with your own pediatrician, and after trying these suggestions to get a child’s sleep schedule back on track.
I always make sure children know that they can come to us if they are sick or very scared, no matter what. (Nightmares and night terrors are a different issue, which my colleague has written about here.) Rarely, children can have medical conditions that impair sleep, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy. Our sleep center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital can help you determine if your child is suffering from these conditions.
If your child is sick, gets off schedule, or goes through a life transition, you may have to go through a sleep-training period all-over again. You’ve done it before, you can do it again. Teaching kids to get to sleep is a life skill, something they will have to re-visit many times, even though teen and adult years. The benefits of a good night sleep are incredible! Kids who sleep well do better academically and socially, and are less likely to be obese or sick. (Read more about the benefits of sleep for kids here.)
Are you tired? Here’s the truth about sleep-deprived parenting.
I recommend a variation of your “100 walks” method. I advise parents that they can offer their child a certain treat each morning, and the number will be related to how many times the child has left the bed the night before. For example, make a deal with your child that you will give her 5 stickers in the morning if she stays in bed. Every time she gets out of bed she will get one less sticker. Make the stickers fun, and see if you can get them to be collectible, i.e. with enough variation that she actually wants to get as many as possible. By the time, she has collected all the stickers, she’s gotten into the habit of simply staying in bed when she is put in her room.
This of course is not infallible. And it depends on if you are able to find the right reward for your child. Personally, for my son, he was rewarded with 30 minutes on the iPad that decreased in 5-minute increments each time he left the bed.
We do a modified 100 walks method ,as well. My daughter is 4 and has about 300 stuffed animals that must be in bed with her. When she comes downstairs, I warn her if I have to take her back up she will give up for the night her most prized stuffie of the moment. If that occurs and she comes down again, she’ll lose another and on the third strike she loses “all her friends” which is a terrible fate to suffer.
something that has helped our LO stay in her crib longer is her zipadee zip. It prolonged her from climbing out and she sleeps so great in it. I would definitely recommend it! We started using it very early, after she needed to transition out of the swaddle.
I found the Zipadee-Zip solved a bunch of my sons sleep issues. First thing we did was stop co-sleeping and then around 4 months place him his swaddle transition blanket. My son’s crying and sleep issues were terrible up until 10 months. For the sanity of my wife and I we switched our little man to a sleeping suit. At first I was skeptical, but it really works! We got our Zipadee-Zip from Sleeping Baby- its a gamechanger! We started using it around four months, and it soothes him and helps him fall asleep faster. I plan to continue having him use it for a while 🙂
My son at 16 months began to climb out of the crib! I decided to try using a swaddle transition sack called the Zipadee-Zip. My idea is that the taught wingspam would help contain him and prevent him from falling out. I found it helps keep in place! It totally worked and he was able to sleep for longer periods of time.
These are all great suggestions. I have used the “100 walks” many times when my children were first starting in a big kid bed. I am facing a new challenge though, and my issue does not fit into any of the above mentioned categories.
My son is 3. He slept great until about 6-7 months ago. Now he gets up 2-7 times EVERY night. He climbs into our bed and either my husband or I take him back straight away (unless he is sneaky and we don’t wake up.) He has no lovey or favorite stuffed animal. So taking something away is not working. He has no impulse control so even if a treat is on the line, he still won’t follow directions. We have tried the “at least stay in your room” idea too, he is not responding. Bedtime used to be a great bonding time and now it is a nightmare. My husband and I are utterly exhausted.
Any advise or words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated. Now morning routing sucks because I am so tired I loose my temper. Thank you for your help.
Traci, I’m in the same boat! At my wits end. We used to sleep all night, every night from 11wks until we took the side down on the crib. It’s been 3 months and he gets up 3-7 times every night. It’s getting worse. We just take him back to his room but he’s not getting it. He does have a blankie but taking that away would cause him to hyperventilate not go back to sleep and sticker rewards stop working after a day or two. I want to do our nightly routine, tell him that I’m going to lock his door and that we will see him in the morning and no matter what, I will not open that door until morning. There’s nothing dangerous in his room. He has a nightlight, books and some stuffed animals. All other toys are in the living room. But my husband thinks he’ll get it eventually and that we should just keep walking him back. We’ve had more sleepless nights these last 3 months than we did when he was an infant. Any advice or tips would be amazing.
Our 2 year old goes through phases where she will do fantastic with bedtime and naps and then all of a sudden she will do horribly for a week or two. The 100 walks thing worked for a few days and then she decided to turn it into a game. We are at the point where we let her cry it out and if she sleeps on the floor at her door during a nap then at least she is sleeping..and if she falls asleep at her door for bedtime we move her to her bed when we go to bed for the night. Bribing her with stickers or fun things doesn’t work. My MIL says I need to stay in her room and rub her back and tell her stories until she falls asleep, but I think that’s a terrible idea. Firstly, I feel it’s a bad habit to have a child get used to a routine like that and “need” it. Secondly, I don’t have time for that! I have a 4 month old son that isn’t always asleep when I put our daughter to bed and I can’t stay in her room for 30 minutes. I’m hoping this is just something that will get better with time and also hoping letting her cry isn’t just a big horrible mom fail. It’s my last resort and it works..
Haven’t tried the melatonin bc of side effects- but this list is short (I’ve tried way more methods than this – with the melatonin exception). An open door reward or 100 walks simply does not work for my kid. Bummer! Was really hoping to read a solution.
I am exhausted. I will be trying the walk method. My 2 1/2 year old has made a game of going to bed. Jumping, screaming, I think I am going to start the sticker reward too. Last night fell asleep on the floor in from of door,. I picked her up and woke her. AHHH
We2re in the same boat. Its awful.
I’ve been doing the 100 walks method without even realizing it! The longest she has slept in her own bed is until 6 am which is when she comes to climb in bed. Eventually I’m certain she will sleep through the night without coming to our room.
You think your child having a routine to help sleep is a terrible idea? No wonder you’re having such trouble. I read a few books to my daughter and scratch her back for a few minutes and she goes to sleep. I’m sure you can handle a 20 minute routine if it means your child getting the sleep she needs.
Put a DOOR LOCK ON INSIDE of their room and make the room super safe and super boring
It really helps
Do what works for you, and don’t worry about anyone who might judge you. Parenting a toddler is hard, especially when you have a baby as well. If the worst thing your daughter experiences in life is crying at bedtime, she’ll be fine. I’m sure you love her deeply and she knows it from the many hours a day when you do interact with you. If letting her cry works, good for you for finding a solution! Go take care of that baby and get some rest yourself!
Your response is rude and uncalled for. As a mom with a toddler and an infant, I understand how difficult bedtime struggles can be, and if you’re here on this site, you’re obviously struggling too. She didn’t say there was no bedtime routine. She said she couldn’t stay in the room for 30 minutes after they put her to bed. Staying in the room and rubbing a child’s back until they fall asleep is not a good way to help them learn to sleep on their own and as a result become more independent. This is what’s called a sleep crutch.
I am honestly disappointed to see another mother here bashing someone for expressing their concerns and seeking advice. Support one another, don’t tear each other down.
A lot of this is helpful. My issue is we share a bedroom which is my only option at the time. So his crib is across from my bed. And we have coslept since he was born. Sleeping has never been an issue. But he will not go to sleep on his own, or in his crib. He will fall asleep with me and then I put him in his crib. He has not alept in there foe morw than 4 hours straight. And he is still nursing to sleep too.
I just do not know what to do and feel that this is all my fault. He is 2 now