Keeping a toddler in bed: sharing a room edition
January 29, 2013 8:28 PM   Subscribe

My exactly-two-year-old (tomorrow) shares a room with his older brother. When bedtime rolls around, stories are done, and lights are out... he will not stay in bed. Looking for any ideas.

When we first placed the two boys together, there was a period where both kids went basically insane. They thought being together meant nonstop all-night playtime.

After much frustration and debate, I started reading the kids The Sleep Fairy three weeks ago, aka "bribe your kids to stay in bed with a pretend fairy as the agent so it's not really you that's doing it." I had resisted using this approach for some time because I knew my younger son wasn't cognitively ready for it, but I hoped that getting the elder child to stay in bed would somehow rub off on the younger child.

Well, it worked almost exactly as I feared. The older child now goes straight into his bed (hallelujah) and waits until morning to get up, and when he wakes up he finds a little present. The younger one? Still gets up every 1-5 minutes until he falls asleep, which can take an hour or more. He stands up in his bed, slithers out into the space between their beds, and if I don't respond he heads for the baby gate which he bangs with all his might, keeping the older brother awake.

I've taken to hanging out outside their room and have been trying the supernanny "put him back in bed with no talk, no cuddles, no nothing" approach. But he seems perfectly fine to get my attention in this limited manner for more than an hour a night.

Compounding my frustration is that he only sleeps 9 hours a night and is frequently up between 5-5:30 AM. So my whole night is spent outside their door, putting him back into bed, until he finally is asleep... and then I have to go to bed myself.

Separating the boys at bedtime is possible, but the problem is that the only other place a boy can sleep is in the adjoining room, so when baby brother gets up to bang on the gate he'll be doing so right into his brother's ears again. Plus now that one boy is completely passive I don't think that's really what keeps him going -- I think he's just bored and knows I'll come and move him if he gets out of bed, which is apparently enough for him.

Other things we've tried:
* a tot clock, set to change from blue (night) to yellow (day) at a certain time. We had to stop it because it was being completely ignored.
* letting the boys look at books in bed with a night light on. Led to them being even more riled up and an even later sleep time, no effect on staying in bed.

His naps ARE inconsistent, my wife tries to rouse him no later than 2:30 PM but that frequently doesn't work out due to whatever other challenges are happening around the house. Maybe that's an angle. Any others? I don't care if he chatters at his brother, sings, tosses, or just talks about his day. But he has to stay in his bed. What to do???
posted by rouftop to Human Relations (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried recruiting the older brother? Now that he's mastered the art of staying in bed, give him the honor of being the sleep fairy's "helper" - when toddler gets out of bed, he's allowed to guide toddler back to toddler's bed and tuck him in before returning to his own bed. But the fairy is still watching - so no lights, books, games, etc. Just help the little one learn the rules.
posted by trivia genius at 8:34 PM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not used to kids this young but if he's not ready for the sleep fairy would he be ready for a routine that involves, say, "buttoning" his eyes shut or "gluing" him to the bed? Something that's a fun game but also has an element of "now it's time to sleep, here's what we do, you can't open your eyes anymore because they're buttoned closed for the night!"
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:38 PM on January 29, 2013

Oh, more ideas!
As for sleeping only 9 hours...some kids just need less sleep at night, especially if they have long and/or late naps during the day. It seems from your comment about nap time that your wife is a SAHM. She needs to prioritize his nap schedule. The nap should become the single most important part of the daily schedule, above all else. That includes trips to the grocery store, doing housework, playtime, etc. That will help with his overall sleep cycles.

Also, paradoxically, young kids and toddlers will sleep longer if put to bed earlier. I learned this as the phrase "sleep begets sleep". Try putting the toddler to bed half an hour earlier each night for the next week and see if it changes his wake up time.

You might also have the added bonus that he falls asleep before your older son's bedtime, and you can just slightly change that bedtime routine so that story time, songs, etc are done outside the bedroom and you just quietly enter and tuck him in without disturbing toddler.
posted by trivia genius at 8:42 PM on January 29, 2013 [10 favorites]

I remember the fun of training a two year old to stay in bed. Some children are more persistent than others (I had three toddlers at one time and two were much easier than the third.)

My suggestion is to mark out two weeks to focus on this issue. The issue is not so much that he won't stay in bed as it is he won't OBEY you when you tell him to stay in bed.

I also agree that his bedtime needs to be earlier, and he needs to be in bed a decent amount of time before his brother. Paradoxical but you'd be surprised.

And hang in there. This won't be forever!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:46 PM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

My son was similarly difficult to keep in bed. So, I made a rule that if he wasn't in bed, he could stand in the corner. That worked pretty well. Some nights he'd have to go 2-3 times, but most times he went straight to bed.

I also had to be very rigorous about his nap and bed times. Some kids can handle a bit of variability, but some really need a good consistent schedule.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:47 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

What every one else has said. He needs to go to bed earlier, and earlier than his brother, which I imagine will cause a huge stink the first night or 2, but being the eldest has it's perks and half an hour of time sitting quietly with mum and dad while the youngest is in bed is one of them. Also whoever is in charge of the naps needs to be stricter with the timing of them and not just fit them in whenever.
posted by wwax at 8:57 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

What's he doing when he isn't sleeping? Jumping? Running? Playing? What do you want to do ideally after he goes to bed? Relax? Housework? Watch TV?

Is there some way to get him doing his own thing until he falls asleep, and you do your thing? Snuggling in front of the tv or the iPad or whatever? Playing while you do dishes?
posted by KokuRyu at 8:57 PM on January 29, 2013

Have you tried staying in the room until he falls asleep? You are currently spending one hour waiting for him to fall asleep. If he can fall asleep with you in the room in five minutes, you'd be saving you and him 55 minutes.
posted by Dansaman at 9:41 PM on January 29, 2013

Dansaman, that's what I did for most of the past 6 months. He would stay in bed, but he'd outlast me, and I'd find myself awake in my clothes at 2 AM. Bleah. At least now I can surf the web on my ipad outside their room, even if it's not productive and I'm interrupted every few minutes...
posted by rouftop at 9:58 PM on January 29, 2013

So you were in his bed but he simply wasn't falling asleep? If that's the case, it doesn't seem like it's a problem of staying in bed but rather on a more fundamental level a problem of not falling asleep. If he's not tired, or he's had too much sugar, or whatever the reason is for not falling asleep, that seems to be the real issue, no?
posted by Dansaman at 10:44 PM on January 29, 2013

When my two boys were sharing a room as a 18 month old and 30 month old we had similar issues including the two painting their room with diaper cream. The younger one was even in a crib, but could climb out. Once we changed the focus from having to go to sleep to having to go and stay in bed, things calmed down.

For the first week or so, they would stay up blabbering to each other and throwing stuffed animals at each other but they stayed in bed. About two weeks in, they would sleep with little fuss.

Partly, it was a control thing and a cry for attention. Once we stopped insisting they sleep which is impossible anyway and started insisting they just had to be in bed they weren't getting the reaction from us to go to sleep.

We would also explain to them during the day that we couldn't go to the park today because they were too tired and cranky so if they wanted to go do physical adventures they needed to be well rested.

Within a month the issue switched to one complaining that the other was making noise and he wanted to sleep.

I cannot claim cause and effect, but to this day, as teenagers they have very healthy sleep habits. They voluntarily go to sleep at 9:30 on weeknights and get 12 hours on weekends. I really believe that they themselves correlate sleep with performance in class and in sports.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:12 AM on January 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

You can try more of a "sleep training" approach, if you're feeling up to it. Put the youngest to bed, and let them know that they need to stay in bed. Tell them that if they get out of bed and start knocking at the gate, you are not going to help them. If they need you, they can call to you from bed.

Then, you do your bedtime routine like normal (although earlier), and remind them of the rules. Leave the room, put up the baby gate, and pray he falls asleep.

When he doesn't sleep, and instead comes banging at the gate, you go to the gate, and tell him he needs to stay in bed, that you love him, but it is time for sleep. Once you do this, you leave, and stay gone for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, if he is still banging away, come back, tell him the same thing, and then leave for 10 minutes. After this, you would do the same thing, going in every 15 minutes. The key is to not pick him up or hold a conversation, just reassure him that you are nearby and that you love him.

It won't take long at all before he stops trying to go to the baby gate, since he knows it won't get him what he wants (for us it took our son 1 hour the first night, 10 minutes the second night, and he stayed in bed completely by the third night). If he does call to you from bed, though, than you should go to him each time.

Once he is in the habit of staying in bed, if he continues to call to you, than you repeat the same process, but this time the goal will be him staying quiet in bed, not just staying in the bed.

Your oldest will get a special treat in being able to stay up later than his brother, and your youngest won't have the distraction of someone else in the room to keep him from wanting to sleep. You'll potentially have a rough couple of nights, but things should be a lot smoother after that.
posted by markblasco at 1:20 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seriously, don't fight it. Make sure all the diaper cream and fun grown up stuff is put away, make the room as kid safe as possible, and then let. it. go. As long as they stay in their room (baby gate!) seriously, just let it go. Then again, I also personally think it's insane to give the older kid a present for the simple task of going to bed; this sets him up for thinking he should get presents for other basic stuff if he puts up enough of a fuss.

So basically, could you just let them exhaust all their hilaaaarious middle of the night antics, get them up every morning at 7AM after they're bone tired, and go on about your day? Make sure they nap an appropriate amount of time so that they're not making up for lost sleep in the middle of the day. After a tough couple days where banging around the room hasn't gotten them any attention (positive or negative) plus now they're both exhausted, it seems the issue would work itself.

I've worked with two sets of parents on this issue, including coping with two kids in one bedroom, and the worst that ever happened was that the parents would go into the bedroom in the morning and find a kid asleep under the table or on the carpet instead of in bed.
posted by zoomorphic at 2:14 AM on January 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

We had a very similar problem-- our two kids share a room, and right around the time he turned two, our younger one figured out how to climb out of his crib.

What we've found is that a two-year-old is sophisticated enough to understand cause and effect, as long as the effect comes immediately. It took a little experimentation to come up with a consequence that would make our two-year-old take notice, but what ended up working was this: every time he climbs out of bed, we take one soft toy out of his bed. (No, we're not stealing his security blanket! He likes having a couple of soft toys in bed at night but isn't particularly attached to any one.)

If he stays in bed for a minute or two, we put the toy back.

We only had to do this for two or three nights, and he got the message and now stays in his crib all night.

Back when our older daughter was two, she also went through a won't-stay-in-bed phase. In her case, we discovered that leaving her bedroom door open (and threatening to close it if she popped out of bed) did the trick. Apparently having the door open made her feel like she could come get us if she needed to, which meant she didn't have to pop out of bed to prove it.

Similarly, you might try the tape trick (and you might also find additional useful advice in that thread.)

Don't panic if none of these methods work for you. Every kid is different. I think the key is just to find an incentive (or disincentive) that will motivate your toddler. With some experimentation, eventually, you WILL get him to settle down.
posted by yankeefog at 2:47 AM on January 30, 2013

Is a crib (possibly plus crib tent) totally out of the question? My 2.5 yo is still in a crib and will be until he sticks out both ends, for exactly this reason.
posted by Ollie at 4:11 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure that our 2 (almost 3) year old would have the self-control to stay in a bed. (She's currently in a crib). N'thing the idea of a crib or tent, although the behavioural teaching options outlined above sound good enough that I will try them if (when?) I have to.
posted by FrereKhan at 4:26 AM on January 30, 2013

the worst that ever happened was that the parents would go into the bedroom in the morning and find a kid asleep under the table or on the carpet instead of in bed.

Yup, I'd quit putting him back in bed after ensuring that his room is adequately childproofed. He can get himself back into bed, right? He'll be fine.

If he can't get himself back into bed think about a Montessori-style bed, otherwise known as a mattress on the floor. Put a pad under it to avoid the accumulation of moisture. Then it'll be up to him.

Also, consider getting earplugs for your older kid.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:29 AM on January 30, 2013

I would try getting rid of naptime.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:46 AM on January 30, 2013

First of all, I would put that kid back in a crib with a crib tent for another 3-4 months. Stop torturing yourself.

Then, once he's too big for that, here's an idea that I've used with success. Give him something he can sleep with that he really loves. For my 2.5. yo son, it's a Rapunzel nightgown, or when that's dirty, a foam sword or a baseball bat. Tell him that if he gets out of bed, you'll take his precious object away. I had to take Rapunzel away exactly once for him to get the idea.

Good luck!
posted by tk at 8:53 AM on January 30, 2013

A cautionary tale: my younger sister was like this when she was a toddler many, many years ago. My parents recruited me to help keep her in bed, and eventually she would not get in bed unless I was there (even though I had a later bedtime). For awhile, I had to pretend to go to bed, wait for her to fall asleep, then I could get up and do other things. It made me very angry and I still resent it even though we're both adults. Not that you suggested this, but as the older sibling, I would have much rather had earplugs than be partially responsible for handling my sibling's misbehavior.
posted by epanalepsis at 9:42 AM on January 30, 2013

Have a really consistent bedtime routine, ending with softly playing lullabies. It helps establish the routine. Allow the child to get out of bed, but be quiet, not disturb his brother (or parents). Can you put the crib in the room? Noisy or disruptive play after lights out means he goes in the crib with soft toys. I would stop checking on him; he's getting way too much attention for this. Go do whatever you would be doing, and unless you hear him, pay no attention. If you hear him, go settle him in bed or crib, and remove a treasured toy from the room, not to be returned for days, if not weeks. It may get worse; 2 year olds are learning to manipulate their environment and may be persistent, but you can outlast him.
posted by theora55 at 10:56 AM on January 30, 2013

I know many MeFites don't believe in spanking, but I do and this is one of those times when it is pretty effective. I have a 2-year-old with the same issue, except she shares a bed with her 12-year-old sister (it's a large bottom bunk - neither sister wants to sleep on the empty top bunk for some reason). She used to get out of bed all the time, sometimes staying in bed until her sister fell asleep, then getting out and playing with toothpaste in the bathroom or whatever.

I swatted her a couple of times after she got up, and now just the threat of a swat keeps her in bed. I usually tuck her in, then leave the room but wait in the hall to hear if she is trying to get up (since she usually gets up within 15 seconds of me leaving). I then say "I see you getting out of bed. I'm going to keep checking on you, and if I find you out of bed, I'm going to have to swat you."

After that, I check on her again after another 15-30 seconds and if she is still in bed I say "Thank you for staying in bed like you're supposed to. I love you! I'll come check on you again!" then I leave. I usually check on her about 30 minutes later, and she's always happily sleeping.

Note that I never beat her or spanked her in anger. I made it very clear that choices have consequences, so the only time she would get the swat was when she made a choice to disobey. I don't know exactly how much of that logic a 2-year-old can process, but she's the fourth kid (out of five) and it seemed to work well with her older siblings.
posted by tacodave at 3:54 PM on January 30, 2013

I would have much rather had earplugs than be partially responsible for handling my sibling's misbehavior.

epanalepsis is right - making one child an assistant parent is a recipe for some intense resentment. I would also not think letting him chatter at his brother as long as he stays in bed is a solution - this is affecting the older child's sleep as well.

I'd get the older child the earplugs that young rope rider suggested and separate their bedtimes with the toddler going to bed earlier as Alia said.
posted by winna at 8:34 PM on January 30, 2013

A followup. A few weeks ago, I was reading these responses in between trips into the room to put my kid back in bed. And I decided to try the simplest thing: leaving him alone when he got out of bed.

Now it may have been a coincidence of timing, but the strangest thing happened. He had rolled out of bed into the space between his bed and his brother's, but instead of coming to the baby gate... he stayed there. And fell asleep there.

The next night, I made him a little "nest" in between the two beds. A folded up blanket became his mattress, and I surrounded him on all sides with pillows. He loved it! And he stayed put!

Since then I've been putting him to bed every night in this spot, and I haven't had to go in there in the middle of the night. Sometimes he wriggles around and sings, sometimes he crawls back onto his "old" bed for a little bit. But by and large he's pretty happy in his nest. And I, for the first time in ages, am free at nighttime!
posted by rouftop at 4:01 PM on February 14, 2013

So happy to hear it! Thanks for the followup.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:29 PM on February 14, 2013

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