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“My daughter turned three in March and we finally transitioned out of her crib into a toddler bed.”
“It took us a long time because she was doing well sleeping in her crib and never attempted to climb out of it. Our pediatrician recommended we switch because of her age. Our daughter likes her toddler bed, but every night and every nap she gets out of bed and plays with toys in her room leaving it looking like a tornado flew in. We placed a baby gate on her bedroom door so she cannot roam around the house. This is not an issue for her…she enjoys being in her room and does not cry at the gate for us. What can I do to help her understand she needs to stay in her bed and not get out and play? One morning I came into her room and she had emptied all the clothes out of drawers in the middle of the night. Although I check on her multiple times throughout the night, I have rarely caught her doing these acts. She is smart enough to know when she gets out of bed to play, she does so quietly. Because she is sleeping less, she is now more cranky during the day.”
Many parents would give anything for a three year old who did not cry at the gate and played quietly in the middle of the night.
Your letter shows me evidence of great parenting. You transitioned your daughter into a bed, she stays in her room and doesn’t cry, she knows how to amuse herself when alone and she does it quietly. These are all wonderful accomplishments for mother and daughter to be to be proud of.
There is, however, another lesson to teach your daughter. Sleep is important and helping our children develop sleep hygiene is an important task of parenting. Children must learn both how to fall asleep on their own and how to fall back asleep after waking in the middle of the night.
Why is good sleep hygiene so important? Crankiness is the least of our worries. Sleep-deprived children are prone to exhibit poor academic performance and behavior problems like tantrums and aggression. They are at increased risk of obesity and diabetes as well as hyperactivity. Sleep patterns are changing and not for the better. Between 1991 and 2012 the percentage of teens self-reporting 1) at least 7 hours of sleep per night and 2) getting adequate sleep both dropped. And teens report a decrease in their sleep hours each year between age 12 and 18. My intuition tells me this is likely related to increased screen time, the frenetic pace of life today, the fact that nearly all our gadgets are lit or light up so there is not enough darkness for peaceful sleep. Many also make noise which is the best way to wake people up as the purveyors of alarm clocks know.
Children must learn that day is different from night, we sleep at night and we play in the day. Tell your daughter all she can do if she wakes up at night in her bedroom is read quietly in bed until she gets sleepy and falls back to sleep. That’s what grownups do, they don’t clean house or do other work in the middle of the night. So children don’t play with all their toys or empty drawers at night. If she keeps doing that at night you will have to take her toys out of her bedroom at night. And you may have to do that, not to win the argument but to ensure she gets a good night’s sleep.
There is one aspect of your parenting I don’t agree with. Why check on your daughter multiple times during the night? You may actually be disturbing her sleep rhythms. Or she may expect your visit and stay awake for it. After the quiet (no screens) bedtime ritual say, “Good night, see you in the morning,” turn out the lights, fasten the gate, and go about your business.
If she is cranky during the day, enforce a nap or some quiet-play-in-bed time. Specify which toys and how many are suitable for quiet play. Remind her she won’t need a long nap and will have more time to play during the day if she learns to fall back to sleep quickly when she wakes up at night.
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