imaginary family values presents

yesh omrim

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How I convinced my child to go the f—k to sleep

28 June 2011

Since insomniac children is a hot topic these days, I ought to share a story of our own adventures in this department.

When our youngest son was two years old, recently transferred from crib to toddler bed, he discovered the joys of getting out of that bed, opening his own door, and visiting his parents. The standard parenting-manual advice for such situations is to deposit the straying child back in his own room, with as little drama as possible, but we feared that no matter how well we kept our poker faces, he was having such a good time with this game that he would not bore quickly.

Screaming at the kid was a tempting proposition, and would have been cathartic in the short term, but probably would not have solved the problem in the long run.

So we employed a technique from the behaviorist canon: “reinforcing the positive opposite”. Rather than discouraging him from getting up, we tried to encourage him to stay down. (Or at least, to stay in his room.) The first step was to reward him for staying in his room, with the door closed, for thirty seconds. For the first few days of the exercise, even this was an accomplishment worth praising.

I stayed in the hallway behind the closed door, mentally counting down. If the two-year-old emerged, I put him back in bed, poker-faced, and restarted the count. If he stayed in his room for the alotted time, I went in, praised him effusively for staying put, reminded him that more cuddling would be his if he would stay in bed, and began counting down again from a higher number. One minute… two minutes… three… five… eight… thirteen… no, I’m not obsessed with the Fibonacci sequence, why do you ask? If he seemed pretty solid about staying in bed for one minute on Monday night, then we might dare to begin Tuesday night with a two-minute timer.

It took a few months of this discipline to break him of the get-out-of-bed game entirely, and I did occasionally wonder if the positive reinforcement was really an improvement over the “just send him back whenever he gets out” technique. However, three years later, all three kids go to bed at the same time, and the youngest one reliably falls asleep before either of his big brothers. Indeed, he falls asleep so promptly that on Saturday and Sunday mornings, he wakes up before either of his brothers, and at seven o’clock, he drags me out of bed, demanding breakfast.

Be careful what you wish for.