Q: Since my youngest son could walk we’ve kept a doorknob cover on his bedroom door so he couldn’t get out and roam the house (our house doesn’t accommodate baby gates and we were worried about him hurting himself). Now he’s three and we’ve taken it off. He falls asleep pretty well but keeps coming out of his room at all hours of the night and very early in the morning to explore the house, snuggle with his brother, or wake him up to play (older brother is happy to oblige). We’ve added “stay in room” to our behavior chart (sticker reward – works well for other behaviors), and bought him a clock that turns green when he can come out… nothing has worked yet. The urge to explore and play is too strong I guess. Any advice?
A: We think once we’ve got our baby sleeping through the night, we’re golden. But then they have a newfound freedom of a big boy bed or an open door and we’re back to daytime zombie mode. Let’s face it, learning to stay in your room or bed is hard work. Bedtime is boring and kids have a natural and healthy desire to explore what’s around them. And to test limits. So both at once? And big brother is game?! Too much to resist! One thing to keep in mind (to keep your sanity) is that this is typical behavior and for many kids only lasts a short period of time.
First know that nighttime wakening is normal in the early years. But if there’s something in the environment or routine that is waking him up (Outside noises? Getting too much sleep during the day?), try to problem-solve that. If he’s coming out of his room because of fear (of monsters, or waking up and being alone which usually improves after age four, or nightmares which peak between age 3-6), you want to address that with compassion and empathy, and help him problem-solve to feel safe. If he’s going into his brother’s room to feel less lonely or to quell anxiety, help him get that need met in his own room (stuffed animal, security blanket, night light, picture of family, etc.). Of course, use good sleep hygiene to help him get into sleep mode (30 minutes before bed turn off screens, decrease stimulating activity, dim lights, have a relaxing bedtime routine).
There is a lot of reinforcement for his behavior – he finds new treasures in the house, he gets to play with his brother, and gets your attention (even if it’s negative attention; most little kids prefer that over nothing). So, bring him back to his room without talking, without making eye contact, and without snuggling – in other words, make the event of being caught very boring for him. Use your behavior chart to positively reinforce the wanted behavior, but maybe upgrade the reward for staying in bed (e.g., temporary tattoo?). One suggestion for sticker charts is to have a variety of stickers and don’t let them pick ‘em! Otherwise they get really familiar with them so they are no longer special, plus there’s no eager anticipation about which one they’ll get.
If all that doesn’t work, some parents find good success with “door consequences.” Tell him the plan in advance: if he comes out of his room you’ll escort him back and close the door halfway. If he comes out again you’ll close it completely for 2 minutes. Then you open it all the way again and start over. This will only work if he wants his door open, and you only want to do this if he isn’t freaking out about being shut in his room. The goal is to teach, not traumatize.
Remember that whatever you try, do it consistently. Give a solution at least two weeks before deciding it isn’t working and trying something new. And if you start to lose hope, remember that this too shall pass. Your 16 year-old son might have other behaviors you’ll want to curb, but sadly, searching the house for snuggles in the middle of the night probably won’t be one of them.