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Reality Check: Making the Big-Kid Bed Transition

Q. Our 3-year-old son loves climbing out of his new big-kid bed -- again and again. We're worried that scolding him to stay in bed is turning bedtime into a punishment. What can we do?


A. The first time we went through the big-kid bed transition, we were excited about it. Like everything with a firstborn, it was as much a milestone for us as it was for Madeline.

The second time we dreaded it. "Please," we begged the imaginary gods of child development, "please let Ellie stay in her crib just a while longer. We're not ready to give up the crib, we're tired and we need our sleep...." This time, we knew that the minute we placed that little pajama-clad body in her bed-without-bars, the choice to stay in or get up was hers, and hers alone.

According to Harvard psychology professor Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., who has spent 40 years studying children's minds, the transition to a big bed provides one of the more dramatic examples of the need for limit setting on the part of the parents and limit testing on the part of the child. A 3-year-old getting in and out of his new bed does want his parents to set limits, says Kagan, "but he's ambivalent about it -- he also wants to see how far he can go."

Understanding the impulses behind behavior always helps me to look upon my errant children in a more philosophical and even-tempered way. Suddenly, their actions seem less petty.

We learned with Madeline that when scoldings escalated into histrionics, the situation only became more interesting for her and exhausting for us. It was the toddler equivalent of a nighttime soap opera; of course she wanted to stay up for it. So we began to make it very boring. Every time she got out of bed, one of us would calmly take her by the hand and put her back in bed, repeating in a monotone voice this mantra: "You must stay in your bed. You must stay in your bed." It took many trips back to bed the first three nights before she finally passed out on her pillow. By the fourth or fifth night she was escorted back just a couple of times. By the end of the week, she was staying in her bed all night. Mommy and Daddy, it turned out, were just too uninteresting to bother getting up for.

So with 3-year-old Ellie, we were prepared. It took longer than with Madeline -- a nerve-wracking three weeks -- and Ellie mocked our mantra, echoing it back to us in her squeaky-tone, taunting voice. But eventually, she did stay in her bed the whole night.

If it takes a while for this to work in your house, keep in mind that just as no one shows up for college wearing a diaper or drinking milk from a bottle, most kids won't keep jumping out of bed at night much past the toddler years.

Contributing editor Trisha Thompson is a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine.

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