Q: My two-year-old son is, bli ayin hara, a VERY active boy. For the past few weeks he has been climbing out of his bed/cot and refuses to stay in it. We have tried a number of tactics, including him playing in his bed or bedroom, and even threatening to close and closing his bedroom door. However, none of these seem to help. And after a few minutes he is out again, playing in the hall, coming in to the room where I am and trying to have a conversation with me. At this point I close his bedroom door but it does not help. I am at my wits end and don’t know what to do! Please note that there are other siblings in his room whom I do not want woken up. Could you please give me some advice? Thank you in advance.
A: Studies have shown that most adults today are sleep deprived. We all go to bed too late, get up too early and do not get the full amount of sleep we need each day. As a result, when adults do eventually get to bed, they delight in finally getting the rest they so desperately need.
Children, however — and this is especially true of two-year-olds — view going to bed as only slightly less abhorrent than going to prison. Their freedom of movement and expression is curtailed. All fun and games stop abruptly. And they are expected to tolerate this nightly incarceration while the rest of the family is up and about!
While all children resist going to bed, clearly some children — especially the more active ones — are more persistent in their opposition than others. In order to train your son to go to bed at bedtime, therefore, you are going to have to work with his nature and not against it.
Shlomo Hamelech said, “Educate a child according to his way.” (Mishlei 22:6) Harav Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l, cited the Vilna Gaon on this passuk. “The matter is that it is impossible for a person to break his nature, meaning the mazel with which he was born.” (Z’riah U’binyan B’chinuch, Feldheim, ’95, p. 18)
In practical terms, this is what you need to do. Once you have put your son to bed, you must stay with him to enforce the “no coming out of bed” policy. To be successful, you must be both gentle and firm. If necessary, take a book to read and park yourself just outside the open door of his room. As soon as he gets out of bed, pick yourself up and then pick him up and return him to bed. If he starts to talk to you, do not respond.
Your presence will comfort him. And eventually, the inactivity and lack of stimulation will tire him enough that he will fall asleep. You will have to repeat this procedure for a few nights in a row until he catches on that you really mean business.
Yes, this will be time consuming. And, no, you cannot step away to take care of other chores “just for a minute” because as soon as you leave your post, he will certainly follow you. If you are determined, you will prevail and succeed in teaching him that bedtime is not playtime. If you slip — even for only one night — you will set yourself back almost to square one.
Once your son has gotten used to staying in bed, you can begin to wean him off your having to stand guard outside his door. Do this gradually to minimize the chances of a relapse. The first night, step away for no more than a minute or two at a time. The next night, increase the interval by one or two minutes. By the time you are up to 10 or 15 minutes, it will no longer be necessary for you to return because he will have already fallen asleep.
Another point to consider is the pre-bedtime routine. Some parents mistakenly believe that they can scoop a two-year-old up from his toys, change him into pajamas and then immediately put him to bed. This never works, because children, especially young children, need more time to adjust in order for them to successfully transition from playtime to bedtime.
Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, was familiar with this aspect of early childhood bedtime behavior. He wrote, “As I understand, most children ages 2 to 4, and even perhaps a bit older as well, do not think about going to sleep at all until at least an hour or two [after they put on their pajamas]. Rather, they like to run around in their pajamas until they get tired and [only] then go to sleep.” (Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim, Vol. 4, Siman 105:3)