By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. How can we keep our 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter in bed? Two weeks ago she climbed out of her crib and never looked back. However, I don’t feel that she is developmentally ready to stay in bed.

We are patting her back until she falls asleep, but this goes against all the parenting I’ve done with my other kids. I would like her to rest and sleep in her own bed, by herself.

A. We’d love to know what else happened two weeks ago. Has an important change or event affected the family – a move, illness or death, a pregnancy, a parent’s job loss? When children this age experience a new stress, the first sign may be a change in sleep patterns.

Parents sometimes assume that a child is “too young” to realize that something’s up, which is appealing when a change is hard to face and parents wish they could protect a child from knowing. At such moments, though, young children need parents’ help to understand what is happening, and how the family will manage. What young children can’t put into words they may translate into actions, like refusing to stay in bed.

Another potential cause may be allergies, asthma or even a cold. Check with your pediatrician.

If your child had been sleeping through the night, she’s mastered how to settle herself down at bedtime. But going to bed means she must temporarily separate from parents and surrender to being alone – unless she is sharing a room.

Separation can be tougher when a child’s world seems less predictable. She needs to believe you will still be there, and respond as always, in the morning.

Another sleep-disrupting event can occur within the child – a developmental threshold we call a touchpoint. At age 3 or 4, children become newly aware of their emotions and of the moral judgments that go with them. They realize they can feel angry or vengeful or jealous. Such emotions may frighten them or make them feel guilty. Often this awareness surfaces as fear about monsters and witches, and in nightmares of angry, vengeful, hurtful creatures.

Parents can help to ease this stress by talking gently about the full range of emotions (their own and their children’s) and by reading children’s books that deal with them – for example, “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak, or “There’s a Nightmare in My Closet” by Mercer Mayer.

When children know their parents can help them handle emotions so they won’t act in scary ways, the fears and nightmares will subside.
(See our book, “Touchpoints: 3 to 6: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development.” Da Capo, 2006)

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Before Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.