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How I Finally Got My 3-Year-Old to Stay In Her Room at Night

Photograph by Twenty20

You know that thing, where life has a way of biting you in the ass when you get too cocky? I think it’s called karma? Yeah… I’ve got a fair amount of experience with that. Particularly when it comes to parenting.

Karma, karma everywhere.

Take, for instance, my daughter's sleeping habits. From the time she was born, my little girl was a perfect sleeper. She was sleeping through the night by six weeks old, putting herself to sleep (with no rocking or interference from me) around four-and-a-half months, and she could consistently be relied upon to sleep in until 9 or 10 AM until fairly recently.

Yes, I was blessed. I never even had to consider sleep training—my kid was just an awesome sleeper, all on her own. And while I recognized that this mostly had nothing at all to do with me, I also got a bit cocky about it being a forever thing. I was convinced that my awesome sleeper would never change.

And then… I moved her to a big girl bed.

To be fair, that change didn’t affect her sleeping patterns at first. In fact, I might have gloated just a bit about my 2-year- old who would remain playing happily in her bed every morning until I came to get her.

Then came the day when she realized that being out of the crib meant she had free access to roam. Ever since, getting my little girl to stay in her bed at bedtime has been a battle.

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There were nights she would come into my room 15, 20, 25 times after I initially tucked her in. She was suddenly staying up hours past her bedtime, and even if she wasn’t hassling me, she was playing in her room like the lights had never been turned out.

I was at a loss. What’s a mama who has always had a good sleeper supposed to do?

Obviously, I turned to the internet for help.

First, because it was summertime in Alaska (meaning, the sun can often be up until midnight) I invested in both blackout blinds and blackout curtains. Because you can never be too thorough with the blackout products.

When that didn’t seem to make a difference, I got her a GoodNite Lite. I’d had friends rave about this thing, a nightlight that changes to a moon when kids should be in bed and to a sun when it’s time to wake up. It’s a visual cue that actually did help to keep her in bed in the morning—she was no longer coming into my room at 5 AM to ask if it was time to wake up. But for some reason, the moon did not have anywhere near the same affect on her at night.

She was still pretty much convinced bedtime was for wussies.

The next piece of advice I found online explained I should sit outside her bedroom and direct her back to bed, with no words or cuddles, as many times as it took. According to this advice, if I was truly committed, my daughter would learn she needed to stay in her bed after just a few nights.

A week later, we were both exhausted. She had decided this whole thing was a game, and had taken to leaving her room just to make sure I was still right there.

That was when a friend suggested the bedtime pass program. As she explained it, you give your kids a pass that allows them to leave their bed one time for any reason. Because they know they only have that one chance, she told me, most kids are more likely to save it and not use it at all.

I was skeptical. What toddler, after all, has the impulse control to understand the concept of saving?

And I realized that having the freedom to leave her own room just wasn’t something my little girl could handle.

I also wanted to know what you were supposed to do if they used the ticket and then came out of their room again anyway. My friend stared at me blankly. “Well… they don’t.” She explained.

Again, I was skeptical.

But, we made the pass, my daughter and I coloring and laminating it together. I gave it to her that night with the instructions that she could only use it one time, so she should save it for when she really needed it.

Five seconds after I walked out of her room, she walked out behind me… pass in hand.

For the record, I tried with that damn pass for over six months. The concept of saving it never once sunk in. Nor was she especially great about recognizing she had already used her ticket when she wanted to leave her room again.

One night a few months after her 3rd birthday, I grew especially frustrated. This kid of mine was leaving her room every 30 seconds, and I’d had enough. “If you leave your room one more time,” I threatened, “I am taking your Zoey away.”

Zoey is her favorite lovey from when she was a baby. She still sleeps with that thing in her mouth every night. I was sure this threat would stick.

It didn’t. And the next thing I knew, I was threatening to take one possession of hers away every time she left her room.

Three nights later, her room was completely bare. My oh-so-smart 3-year-old had again decided this was a game, and she had taken to walking out of her room with a toy in hand to give to me. She didn’t flinch when I threw it all in trash bags and walked it out the front door. She smiled at the window and waved as I carried it all to the garage.

That was when I realized… this kid owns me.

Something weird did click on that third night, though, just when I had been prepared to give up. For reasons I can’t even explain, she suddenly decided it wasn’t a game anymore, and started staying in her room. Slowly (very slowly) I began giving her prized possessions back… one item for every night she stayed in bed. When her room was packed full of toys and stuffed animals again, I thought for sure we had kicked the leaving the bed habit.

A week later, it started up once more.

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Sure, I could have started taking her toys away again. But you know what? I hated that punishment! It meant she had no loveys to self-soothe with at night or in the mornings, and no toys to play with during the day… which meant she was relying on me 100 percent for her entertainment.

And so, I put up a gate.

That’s right, I gate my child into her bedroom every night. And you know what? She stays in there now.

I’ll admit to not loving this solution (and to taking the gate back down every night once she’s finally asleep because… what if there were a fire?) But I kept waiting for my kid to figure out it was her responsibility to stay in bed, and that just wasn’t working.

We tried everything. None of it stuck. And I realized that having the freedom to leave her own room just wasn’t something my little girl could handle.

Interestingly enough, she still stays in her room great in the morning until her nightlight turns to a sun. I have no idea why that works as a deterrent in the mornings when it never did at night. But whatever… it’s a small win I’ll take.

Maybe someday, we’ll actually be able to lose the gate at night too.

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