A Fun Bedtime Game That Gets Toddlers to Stay in Bed
Night after night, 2 1/2-year-old Asher called his parents back to his room after lights-out. He wanted a drink, a hug, another book. He was an expert at persuasion: “I really, really, really need a kiss from Daddy.”
So Matty and Masha decided to have a meeting with Asher during the day. They sat down and talked about all the fun things they did last weekend and all the great things that Asher was doing now that he was a big boy (so much bigger than his little brother, Max). But they all had one problem. Asher didn’t like it when he had to go to bed, and they didn’t like it when he kept calling them back.
“But I have a good idea,” said Masha. “We’ll give you 2 of these poker chips every night at bedtime. We’ll still come back whenever you want us to, but the new rule is that each time we come you’ll give us one of the poker chips, just like the way we pay for something at the store.”
“If you don’t need us to come back at all, then you can keep the poker chips, or give them to us and we’ll give you a special gift for each poker chip. Should you get a special sticker? Or would you like a little bag of goldfish for 2 poker chips? What do you think would be a good gift?”
Asher decided he wanted the goldfish crackers. And they all agreed and shook hands on their new deal. That night at bedtime, right before brushing his teeth, Matty played the boob (one of my favorite toddler techniques) by pretending that he couldn’t remember what they’d agreed on.
He asked Asher for help: “I can’t exactly remember our deal. We give you 2 poker chips and then you give us 1 each time you call for us to come. But in the morning what do we give you for each poker chip? Was it a quarter?” And Asher immediately chimed in, in his cute little lisp, “Glodfiss!!” “Oh right, goldfish crackers. You love them so much!”
About 5 minutes after lights-out, Asher called out, “I’m thirsty Mama!” Masha came right away and said, “Hi, sweetheart, I can get you some water or juice, but remember the rule: you have to give me one of your poker chips—or if you’re not too-too thirsty you could wait until morning, and then get all the water you want for free, okay?”
Asher’s face got serious and he looked at his hand (holding the chips) and then at Masha and then at his hand again. Then he said, “That’s okay, Mama, I don’t need water so much right now.” Masha reminded him that she’s happy to come back again if he got thirsty. And he said, “That’s okay, I’ll just hug Knuckles [his stuffed dog].” “Okay,” Masha said.” “Just let me know if you need me later. Night-night…don’t let the bed bugs bite!”
Masha said, “By the way he was clutching those chips, I knew I was going to get sleep that night. The next morning, he proudly presented the chips to us at the breakfast table. And we exchanged them for his crackers (which he put away in his room for later!).
“The rest of the week, there were only a few times he exchanged a poker chip for me to come and cuddle. The next week we had another meeting and changed the incentive: Asher decided that he wanted 1 chip to get a 2 minute piggyback ride and he wanted to keep the goldfish crackers for the 2-chip exchange. “
As you can see, you should never threaten or criticize your child for not getting the tokens. Just cheerfully remind her that she has a choice. And if she doesn’t do the job today, maybe she’ll do it tomorrow.
Of course, if your child refuses your deal or breaks her promise, you can try giving her another chance (“Okay, I can see you’re not ready yet, so should we give you 1 or 2 more minutes to play before we have to put on PJs and brush teeth?”). But if she still refuses, you may just have to skip the tooth brushing that night (it’s too hard to do with a screaming child anyway). Tell her she leaves you no choice but to pick her up and take her to bed—so she doesn’t learn that whining gets her what she wants.
When you combine win-win solutions with all your bedtime sleep cues, you’ll solve many sleep problems quickly. Here’s a quick review of all the tricks you can use at this stage to get your little cub tucked in happily:
- Build confidence during the day with Toddler-ese, patience-stretching, magic breathing, gossiping, playing the boob, sticker charts, role-playing, fairy tales and a Beddy-Bye.
- Have 30-60 minutes of quiet time with the lights dimmed and the TV off before you start your routine. A warm bath and a massage can also relax your child.
- Let your sweetie say goodnight to all the toys!
- Use white noise, loveys, storybooks, lullabies, lavender and bedtime sweet talk to help your child drift off. A pacifier is fine at this stage, too.