Sleep: Helping a child stay in their own bed

Three weeks ago my 18-month-old son moved from a cot in our bedroom to a regular bed in his own room. He loves his new room and plays in there a lot. At night we have a set routine -- clean teeth, kiss goodnight, read two stories. Despite this, he is reluctant to stay in his bed. The only way we can keep him there is to sit with him until he falls asleep. He also often wakes during the night and once again we have to settle him and sit until he falls asleep. Any suggestions?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your 18 month old is not yet developmentally able to control his behavior and impulses. Though he no doubt understands the concept of "staying in bed", he cannot be expected to do so without some kind of help. Children must be given the opportunity to internalize boundaries, before they can gain mastery over their impulses.

Your son must develop in two ways before he can resist the temptation of getting out of a bed with no sides! First, he must develop some ability to soothe himself. Children learn to internalize the love and comfort of their parents by transferring affection to other "transitional objects" like stuffed animals, or some other favorite toy. When they want to replicate the comfort of their parent, they may hug the toy, book or other object of choice. The child develops a sense of security through this process.

Secondly, your toddler must develop the ability to delay or deny his behavioral impulses. He is too young to be capable of the kind of control you are expecting of him. Children learn to internalize control by experiencing external boundaries. At this age, your son needs some physical limits set for him.

Let me give you an example. If you gave your son a new toy and told him not to play with it until the following day, you would have a lot of protest on your hands. Likewise, it is much too tempting for your toddler to just get up out of his child's bed and go and find Mommy and Daddy if nothing stands in the way. Therefore, it might be wise to consider some kind of "transitional" bed for your 18-month-old.

Consider putting your son in a playpen/sleeper (or a bed with a secure railing). The physical containment of the netting or railing provides external boundaries which he has not yet developed. This alternative may also offer a gentle containment that may help him feel more secure. The physical boundaries allow him to "practice" remaining in his own bed at night. Some children prefer using a traveling playpen/sleeper as their bed because it is close to the ground instead of up "high" like traditional cribs. This offers toddlers some sense of control as they develop the capacity to override initial impulses.

Autonomy is encouraged because your son could, in fact, climb out of such a bed with effort, but the containment encourages him to delay this behavior and to follow the "rules" of "staying in bed". See-through netting also offers children a sense of being "in charge" of their environment because they can see what is going on in their room.

Your toddler needs a way to make the transition between being completely "in charge" of himself during the night and being held by the presence of others. Continue your comforting nighttime ritual, give him a favorite stuffed animal and provide a sense of containment for him to develop the self- soothing and the inner control necessary to sleep in a regular bed apart from you.

Do not mistake your son's ability to comprehend with his capacity to control his behavior. By the age of three or sooner, he will likely be ready for a regular bed. For now, create a sleeping environment that gives him a chance to "practice" his ability to sleep separately.

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