When your child keeps getting out of bed!


Dear Adele,

Several months ago, we moved our preschooler out of his crib into a junior bed. Unfortunately, this has led to a new sleep time problem. Our son has discovered the freedom of no railings and is constantly getting out of bed after we have said good night. One evening, we counted him up 11 times with requests to use the bathroom, to get a drink of water, to have something to eat, to determine the cause of a noise and a myriad of other excuses for getting out of bed. Not only is he not getting his full complement of rest but we are exhausted and losing our patience with him. Any suggestions?



Dear Sleepless,

What a nightmare! So sorry you are experiencing this everyday problem with your son. Fortunately, many people have lived to tell the tale and much has been written to help you solve this unwanted behavior. Let me offer some help.

Dr. Thomas W. Phelan has an excellent chapter on this subject in the ‘Revised Fourth Edition of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2 to 12’. He says that children often get out of bed because they are frightened, bored or seek the attention of their parents. It is your job to figure out which of these reasons, or any other reason, that is causing your child to rise before morning, and to disturb both his sleep and yours. It is important that you do figure it out, because nighttime problems are difficult. None of us at are at our best when we are up in the middle of the night and sleep deprivation affects both parents and children in an ongoing way, both night and day.

Dr. Phelan suggests you begin with a good bedtime routine. You might want to include a regular bedtime, removal of all devices, provision of a quiet restful environment and assistance with basic hygiene routines such as brushing the teeth, going to the toilet, having a bath, getting into one’s PJs and having a drink. Following these basics, comes the child’s special time with mom or dad spent reading stories, cuddling and chatting. A consistent established routine, which includes most of these elements, sets your child up for the expectation that sleep is next on the agenda and that you expect him to stay in bed and get rest.

If your child calls out for you do not go to his room unless he is extremely upset. Do not turn on the lights and don’t get involved in trying to talk to a toddler. Do not argue. Try not to engage. Simply reassure and leave the room.

If this does not work you could try sitting in the room until sleep occurs. Dr. Phelan suggests you have a chair placed beside your child’s bed. Sit in it without interacting. Over time you can move the chair beside the child’s bed further away, and actually into the doorway outside of the child’s room. If this is repeated each night as required, within a reasonable period of time, the child should get the idea that he’s not getting out of bed no matter what.

A Mayo Clinic staff article entitled ‘Child Sleep: Put preschool bedtime problems to rest’, is a helpful read. It says that you should try to make bedtime uncomplicated, tranquil and highly predictable. The routine should be followed to the letter each night with as few changes as possible. Try to avoid the use of electronics, quell sources of noise and include a restful bath and stories. The authors suggest that the whole household slow down before bedtime. The child might find it helpful to have a comfort object to cuddle with. A nightlight left on in your offspring’s room, and the door left open, might assist with insecurities about trying to go to sleep alone in his room.

The same article goes on to suggest that you try to anticipate the requests the child might have if he gets out of bed, and handle them all before the bedtime routine is complete. Should your son rise, return him to bed immediately and give him no attention for the behaviour. Should he wake at night try not to respond to calls, but, if necessary, simply reassure the child that all is well and leave the room. Finally, if it seems that your little one is staying up later and later, you might want to cut back on the child’s naps and be sure the sleep window is age-appropriate.

Kim West in ‘Helping Your Child Stay in Bed’ concurs with most of these ideas. For older children with the same problem, she suggests that a family meeting be held in which everyone contributes to the rules for sleeping. Expectations should be set that are reasonable and clear. Everyone comes to agree on cooperation at bedtime, how to put oneself to sleep without the parents lying down, how to snuggle with a toy or a blanket instead of the parent and how to stay in bed until the wake-up light comes on in the morning. A chart can be made with older children and stickers used as rewards. As well, praise, hugs, verbal acknowledgements and talking about successes during the day are helpful.

If your child does not seem tired at bedtime, you might try allowing him less sleep during the day. You could also let the youngster look at books in bed before lights out, hoping he will fall asleep on his own.

A cogent thought from Dr. Phelan, reminds us that the more you reward your child’s getting up, the more the behaviour will be repeated. So, try hard to not let your progeny have any fun with mom or dad when he seeks your attention by getting up after bedtime. In Dr. Phelan’s words, “If a child won’t stay in bed at bedtime, the longer he is up and the farther away he gets from his bedroom, the more reinforcement he will get from the activity.”

Finally, accept that occasional waking is normal, but if it is more often than occasional, you might want to consult your health care provider.

So Sleepless, stay relaxed, consistent, patient, quiet, proactive and circumvent any positive reinforcement for this behavior. Eventually, your boy will get it!

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

Photo: iStock