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When my son’s therapist told me to try a “chip system” with him, I thought she was talking about potato chips.

My son laughed. “No, mommy, poker chips!” Then he turned to the therapist and asked her “What are poker chips?”

It goes to figure that just a few weeks earlier I had tossed our entire supply in the trash after cleaning them up for the 400th time.

The thrill of my son overcoming his terrifying fear of thunderstorms was quickly overshadowed by his sleep issues, an ongoing problem that would often go in waves, until the waves came crashing down. The 2am visits to our bedroom were painful. But when they were followed by a 4am visit, along with temper tantrums when we escorted him back to his room that ended up waking up all the other kids, it was downright maddening.

I expected the bedtime battles with my two-year old, but I’m pretty sure every parent believes that when you finally get past all the teething and the toddler milestones, you’re at least going to get a little sleep. Until they’re teenagers, anyway.

We tried charts and stickers. We offered him treats and toys. We moved his baby sister in the room with him so he wouldn’t be alone and scared. We told him he’d lose the beach trip with his grandparents.

Nothing worked.

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While sitting in the room until he fell asleep (mostly to keep his baby sister in her toddler bed) had temporarily solved the issue of him coming out of his room 500 times before he’d finally fall asleep, he was still visiting us in the wee hours of the morning, no matter what we tried.

So when the therapist explained the chip system, I was skeptical, not only because I had pretty much tried every token system on the planet, but because I was worried if we’d be able to stick with it.

But the thought of sweet, beautiful sleep injected me with enough optimism to give it a try.

Of course, you don’t need actual poker chips to use this reward system, which can work for lots of different behaviors. The collection of old game pieces we had stuffed in our junk drawer worked perfectly.

The concept is simple: He earns chips that he can turn in for various rewards for staying in his bed. However, there were a few caveats that made this method different than anything else I had tried.

First, the therapist reminded me that he needs to have a chance at being successful, so she suggested he get one chip if he comes out of his room but then goes back without throwing a fit. Staying in his bed all night without coming out would earn him two chips.

Next, she told me that he needs to be able to “cash in” his chips pretty quickly, so the rewards should be small, but tempting, and no toys required. Try an extra cookie at dessert time, more reading minutes at bedtime, or his own pack of gum, which is a big deal around these parts. I figured it was best if the rewards were motivating to him, not what I perceived would be motivating, so I sat down with him to determine his “prizes” and created a chart that showed him what he could get for his chips. The choices ranged from 10 minutes of video game time per chip to a hugely coveted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toy for ten chips.

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And finally, she told me to be careful not to provide him with a secondary reward for his negative behavior, which for him was spending extra time with us as we dragged him back to his room, tucked him in, and often sat there until he fell asleep. Instead, she instructed me to work that into his actual reward system so that he would be getting that individual time appropriately during the day.

I’m pleased to report that just a few days ago, he traded in 10 chips for cash, all of which he had saved up over the last week, even after “spending” a few on video game time. And yes, there were a couple of rocky nights, especially when his grandparents were visiting overnight, which seems to always cause him a fair amount of sleep disruption.

But overall, even just a quick reminder of “Do you want a chip?” would send him right back to his room without a fight.

I should mention that we also decided to cut out as much processed sugar from his diet as possible, especially before bedtime, a pattern we noticed definitely affected his behavior and sleep. While we’re not big junk food eaters, nor do we give the kids a load of sweets, the birthday parties, after-school ice cream treats, and pre-bed desserts were adding up. And I’m not surprised that the switch to graham crackers or fruit for an after dinner treat has made a huge difference as well.

Ideally, he’ll stay in his bed the entire night, but for now, it’s working. If anything, I have a consistent plan that’s easy for us to implement and one that truly motivates my son.

And we’re both getting sleep. Finally.

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