Parenting for the Perplexed: Getting kids to stay in their beds takes more than a lullaby

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via

Welcome back! In the June 8 column, we talked about getting babies to sleep in their bassinet or crib. Now for Part 2: toddlers and preschoolers.

Even if you established a consistent routine in infancy (if not, go back to Part 1), and your toddler has been going to bed like a tired kitten, the day will arrive when the system breaks down. It can start with an illness, a disruption in schedule, house guests, Purim, a scary experience — you name it.

Sometimes it comes out of the blue: One day your child realizes that after she is in bed, life goes on in the living room — maybe even a party! She begins to resist going to sleep, usually by having at least 27 requests at bedtime, demanding that you stay with her and popping out of bed and out of her room.

If your child had a smooth going-to-bed routine as a baby, what you have on your hands is a limit-setting issue. If your child did not have a routine as a baby, every day that passes without one will likely make the battles harder. Either way, jump in with both feet to create or re-establish a simple, brief and totally consistent routine. For example:

After cleaning up (dinner dishes, toys), snuggle and read two or three short story books in the living room as a winding-down time.

Then move swiftly through tooth-brushing and putting on pajamas to one or two story books in bed, a lullaby, a goodnight kiss and lights off (leave a night light on if your child is scared).

From here on, the most important thing your child needs to know, with absolute firmness, is that he has to stay in his bed. Don’t tell him “Go to sleep,” since you can’t enforce that. Be consistent with “You have to stay in your bed.”

Help it along by letting him listen to simple stories or lullabies on a CD (the same one every night; you’ll see why in a minute). Often you need to start by sitting next to your child’s bed and enforcing the routine by turning the CD off the instant he tries to get out of bed. Don’t get excited! Monotone consistency will get the best results.

About those 27 requests: Ask your child what she needs before getting into bed, and fulfill these within reason. Limit the requests to two within a small range of options (e.g., a sip of water, one trip to the toilet, a goodnight kiss from the “off-duty” parent). Stay really firm!

As a temporary measure, you’ll probably have to sit by your child’s bed until she falls asleep (hopefully no more than 20 to 30 minutes). Once she has internalized the rule and stays quietly in her bed, you can build up longer intervals when you are out of her room.

A few minutes into the CD, tell your child: “I have to check something. I’ll be back for the ‘Choo-Choo Train’ song,” which (since you have the CD memorized by now) you know comes in 30 seconds. Add: “Lie quietly till I am back.” If needed, call it out again from the hallway. It may take many repetitions to get this down. Be sure to praise your child for waiting quietly once he does.

When he can wait quietly for 30 seconds, increase your time out of his room to 60 or 90 seconds, again telling him precisely when you’ll be back. Over the course of 10 days, build up your time out of his room by two- and three-minute increments. Your goal is to stay for the first two songs and return for the last one. He’ll either fall asleep in the interim (assuming the CD is 20 or 30 minutes long) or will hold onto a thread of wakefulness to make sure you come back. Once you say “I’m back — good night,” he’ll fall asleep in two seconds.

If your child is 2 or older and has a good grasp of cause and effect, help this along with a sticker chart in which you reward forward steps each morning. The stickers should culminate in a special outing or party to celebrate the new accomplishment: pleasant bedtime for everyone.

Rachel Biale