Dear Faith, Our daughter recently learned how to climb out of her crib, so we’ve made the switch to a big-kid bed, and now everybody’s miserable. We used to put her into her bed, give her a kiss and shut the door. She’d chatter for about ten minutes, then fall asleep. Now, she’s climbing out of bed and crying at the door. I’ll put her back to bed a dozen times, but eventually she falls asleep on the floor by the door. What should we do? ~Exhausted Mom
Dear Exhausted Mom,
A bed is a place where a child must feel cozy and safe and secure, in order to relax her body and fall asleep. Young children thrive on knowing how things go, and developing relationships with the people and the things in their lives, so it is no surprise that a new bed is a big change and DOESN’T feel secure. One way to have the transition to a new bed go smoothly is for us (as the safe and secure adults in her life) to lend our own presence to the bedtime routine until your daughter develops her own relationship with it. This may involve a fair amount of effort on your part, and perhaps significant changes in your bedtime routine, but it sounds like putting her back to bed a dozen times is involving a fair amount of effort on your part, anyhow! Better to put that effort into helping her feel secure, and develop good habits around how to act in her new bed.
Smoothing the Way For those of you who are just contemplating the switch to a big-kid bed, start talking about it 1-2 weeks before you plan to make the switch. Tell your child that now that she’s big, she’ll be getting a new bed that is so cozy and soft. If you will need to change the bedding to fit the new, larger bed, get it in advance, and bring it out one piece every few days. “This will be the blanket for you new bed. You’ll sleep so well under this soft blanket. I know…let’s put this blanket on your bed now, so that you’ll know how soft it is.” If you can tuck the sheets in tightly enough, put them on a bit later, perhaps a week before the switch. Scent is very strongly connected to comfort and security, and having sheets and blankets that ‘smell right’ will help the relationship to the new bed start off on the right foot. For you, Exhausted Mom, this part is a big harder, since you’ve already made the switch and your daughter doesn’t like the new bed. Instead, you might bring out the ‘big guns,’ and take a blanket off of your own bed as a Special blanket that will help her sleep.
Another piece of smoothing the way is to create a verbal image of what things will be like. I do this with new children at Rainbow Bridge who are going to stay for nap. Several times during the morning on which it will happen for the first time, I’ll tell him about what’s going to happen, “You’re going to take your nap here today! After lunch we’ll play outside, then we’ll come in and you’ll have some cheese and raisins for a little snack, you’ll look at a book on the couch, then we’ll tiptoe downstairs to brush our teeth, and tiptoe right to our beds. You’ll lie down and listen to me sing, then you’ll close your eyes and go right to sleep.” At least once I’ll walk downstairs with him while I’m telling him, to show him where we’ll brush our teeth, and show him where his bed is, with his blanket from home (with the ‘right’ smell). I’ll do this three or four times during the morning, and it’s absolutely amazing how, when the time comes, it usually goes exactly how I’ve described. Even children who no longer nap at home will live into this imagery, closing their eyes and fall asleep. For you, Exhausted Mom, it might look something like this: “Tonight is going to different for bedtime! First we’ll brush our teeth, then we’ll go and get the Special Blanket that will help you sleep. I’ll wrap you up tight in the Special Blanket, then I’ll rub your back, and you’ll close your eyes and fall fast asleep, with me right there beside you. Tonight, you will love going to sleep.”
Making the Switch While your child is getting used to her new bed and learning that it is indeed a cozy, safe and secure place in which she can relax her body and fall asleep, you will need to provide that security with your presence. First of all, make sure that during your lead-up to bedtime, you are helping her body slow down and get ready for sleep. Have the house gets darker and darker (turn out the lights and pull the curtains if it’s summertime) and your manner gets slower and slower, softer and softer, throughout the process. If you read your child stories before bed, only read one. If it’s very short, you can read the same story two, or even three times. Read it a little slower and softer each time. This way you are helping your child wind down, instead of winding up with lots of new images. Then tiptoe to bed and tuck your child in. Read my post on Help Getting to Sleep, here.
For the first week or even two, my suggestion is to stay until your child is asleep, sitting quietly near their bed or lying down next to it (not in it; this is SO cozy and secure that your child might never want to let it go! Also, it’s easy to wake her as you get up to leave). Then, when this new rhythm is well established, wait until your child is ALMOST asleep and then give her a kiss and whisper in her ear: “I’ll let you finish falling asleep on your own. Sleep tight.” Stay right outside the door and shush her if you hear any movement. If she gets up, put her back in bed and stay with her till she falls asleep for a few more days. Gradually, you can start ‘letting her finish falling asleep by herself’ earlier and earlier, until you find a point that feels good to both of you.
Midnight Wakings If your child wakes in the middle of the night, it’s up to you what to do. But if you don’t want her climbing into bed with you, my suggestion is to respond in a very sleepy voice, “It’s still time for sleeping.” Take her back to her bed, and go through a very quiet version of your in-bed rituals with her (rubbing her back, humming a song), then sit quietly by her bed until she’s asleep or nearly asleep. Children who are at least 2.5 who wake in the night can often be comforted by the idea of a Guardian Angel. Put up a picture of a guardian angel (or some sort of protective symbol that works with your world-views), and tell your child that while you’re in your own bed, the Guardian Angel will watch over her and keep her safe. Near the end of your bedtime routine, incorporate a little ritual where you pass the responsibility over to the guardian angel to watch over your little girl and keep her safe. Tell your child that if she wakes up in the night, all she has to do is look and see if her Guardian Angel is there watching over her, and she’ll know that she is safe, and can close her eyes and go back to sleep.