Q: For the past several weeks, our just-turned 3-year-old has been waking up and coming into our room at all hours of the night with the usual excuses. He’s scared, hungry, thirsty, lonely, can’t sleep, has to use the bathroom, wants a kiss and so on. He goes to bed at 7:30 if he takes an afternoon nap and 6:30 if he doesn’t. We are a marriage-centered household, so evenings are for Mom and Dad. Neither of our kids has ever even napped in our bed. When we take him back to his room, we usually lock the door. The next time he wakes up and discovers he can’t get out, he begins crying and kicking the door, waking our 4-year-old. Should we be patient, hoping this phase will pass quickly, or should we punish? We are zombies.
A: The living dead, eh? I remember those days well. Our first, Eric, did not sleep the night until he was nearly 3 years old. The problem was a combination of colic and two very inexperienced parents. I was in graduate school at the time and supporting us by playing in a rock ’n’ roll band. One night, after trying unsuccessfully to put Eric back to sleep, my choices were to go stark raving mad or write a song. So, because it’s against the rules for a psychologist to go crazy, I wrote a song titled “Three O’Clock in the Morning Rockin’ My Baby Blues.” It was pretty good, actually – a heavy blues number. I started adding verses to it during those early morning rock-a-thons. When Eric finally began sleeping the night, the song was 10 pages long, typed, single-spaced.
It is not at all unusual for a child’s sleep pattern to change around the third birthday. Some children outgrow the need to nap around this time. The fact that your son is on-again, off-again with his afternoon nap tells me he’s going through this transition. In that event, I encourage you to stop trying to fight city hall. Dispense with the afternoon nap altogether. Put him to bed at 7. Cut his bedroom door in half, just above the knob, then rehang it and turn the knob around so you can control the lock.
After you put him to bed, close the half-door and lock it. Children don’t like being closed behind a full door because they can’t see out, but they accept the locked half-door fairly readily. Acceptance usually takes about a week.
A second, slightly more painful option is to dispense with his nap, put him to bed at 7, and just wait this out. As I said, it’s probably a transition that will resolve itself by the time he’s in high school. But seriously, can you put up with this for a month or so?
Option 3 is to put both children to bed in the same bedroom, at the same time. Close their door and let them play themselves to sleep. Tell them that as long as they’re quiet and don’t come out, they can keep the light on. If they make noise or come out, the lights go out and they have to go to sleep. If you enforce that calmly, you should be over the hump in a week or so, and you can return from the living dead. I am living proof.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.