By Leanna Page, M.Ed, BCBA
bSci21 Contributing Writer, and your “Behavior BFF”
“Dear Behavior BFF, my daughter is 3 ½ years old and has recently started getting out of her bed at night and screaming until one of us goes in to her. When we get there, she is fine and wants to play. How do we get her to stay in bed and stop waking up the neighborhood with her screaming at 3am? Help!”
Sleep training. It’s such a controversial issue in the mommy world. It’s so important to teach our children to sleep and yet so incredibly personal! What I can share with you are some positive behavior supports to teach your child to stay in bed, to communicate her needs in a better way, and to earn positive reinforcement for staying in bed/ in her room.
When a problem behavior occurs in the middle of the night, it’s just not fair to the parents. A drowsy, half-asleep, incredibly tired parent is not so likely to be on their A-game. How on earth are we supposed to use positive supports when we don’t even know who we are and what’s going on?! It’s helpful to make a plan in the light of day, then just follow your own guidelines in the wee hours of the morning.
Here are some practical ideas that are rooted in decades of behavior analytic research. What’s more, I’ve seen them work for this problem with my own two eyes with my own child and with friends’ and family members’ kids. Research doesn’t lie!
- Set clear routines for your child. At bedtime, we do this, this, and this. We read two books, sing one song, and turn out the lights. Whatever the routine is: make it clear and consistent. Follow your set routine every day.
- Set clear expectations. You stay in your bed until the clock has a 7 in this spot. Put a post it by the hours section with a ‘7’ on it. Or get one of those fancy clocks that has the nighttime/ day time setting. You stay in your bed (or in your room/ whatever the expectation is at your house) until the sun is shining on your special clock. Or maybe it’s simply: you stay in here until mom or dad comes in to get you in the morning. Mom and Dad always come back in the morning.
- Teach your child the replacement behavior to screaming for mom and dad. If you wake up in the middle of the night, here are your options for things to help you fall back asleep. In this basket by your bed, you have soft books, a taggie blanket, and a stuffed animal that plays a song. You can look at the books, rub the blanket, or listen to the song from the teddy bear. It is not time to play. It’s time to relax and use these things to help you go back to sleep.
- Arrange the environment for your child to be successful. A night light within reach, optional quiet activities within reach. Super fun toys that tend to hype up your child need to be far out of reach. It is not time to get excited and play. It’s time to calm down so these things are available to you.
- Provide positive reinforcement for the desired behavior. If you go all night without screaming, in the morning you get ___(special thing)__. It may be a special toy is put away up high until your child earns time with it each morning. Maybe a show while mom multi-tasks and prepares breakfasts and lunches. Maybe a special breakfast item or your child gets to pick what’s for breakfast. You don’t have to go out and buy new stuff to give your child as rewards. Just find something they will want access to and make it a big deal for them.
- Use a token economy. When you stay in your room quietly all night, you get a sticker on your chart. When you have 6 stickers, we get to do this special activity! (Go to a different park, go out to eat somewhere your child likes, do an art activity at home together, an extra play date with a friend, whatever!)
- Use prompts to help your child be successful. This may be pictures (or words if they are reading) displayed near the bed. This may be a spoken reminder through the baby monitor or through the closed door. Remind your child of what he/she can earn by staying quiet and in their room until morning. Remind them of their options in that moment: you can look at your soft books, snuggle your blanket, or listen to music.
Make sure your child knows when screaming for mom and dad IS the right choice: sick, injured, bleeding, really scared, etc. There are times when your child needs you in the middle of the night. Teach them the difference. Make it clear and easy to understand.
Talk about the plan, the opportunity for reinforcement, and the options for when you wake up and find ways to teach it during the day. Read books about kids who stay in bed; write a social story; find videos online of cute cartoon characters going to bed nicely; draw pictures with your child of the bedtime plan. Talk about it a LOT and make it a positive, happy topic.
Remember your plan in the middle of the night! It’s so easy to half-asleep stumble into your kid’s room because that’s your instinct as a parent. If you set a plan, follow through.
Sleep training is tough. Try the positive stuff to teach your child to stay in bed and not disrupt the whole household (or neighborhood). Positive behavior supports work- behavior analytic research tells us as much.
Try these strategies to increase the number of zzzzz’s everyone in your family gets on a regular basis! Well-rested mom = happy mom. Happy mom = fun mom. Don’t we all want to be the fun mom every once in a while?
Do you have any other strategies to share? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!
Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA has worked with kids with disabilities and their parents in a variety of settings for over 10 years. She has taught special education classes from kindergarden-grade 12, from self-contained to inclusion. Leanne has also managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting. Since becoming a mom, Leanne has a new mission to share behavior analytic practices with a population she knows needs it- all moms of littles! Leanne does through her site parentingwithaba.org and through her book ‘Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity”. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.