To be successful in teaching toddlers and kids how to sleep properly, it is important to create boundaries and reward good behavior when it comes to sleep. As kids get older, they become experts in making deals and toeing the line. It’s parents’ job to make sure that they are consistent with their expectations and to keep life as calm and consistent as possible.
Kids do not do well in chaos, and this can be prevented by establishing rules for the whole family to live by. The foundations of what I teach to families about sleep and behavior can be applied to just about any issue a parent might want to address — talking back, hitting, screaming, nose picking, not cleaning up, you name it! Here are my tips on how to best handle your child’s behavior:
1) Establish your rule and write it up: when introducing a new rule, it’s best that everyone be on the same page about it. That’s why I recommend that your new rule be written for the whole family to see. This acts as a reminder to everyone. I also recommend trying to word it in the most positive way possible. For example, instead of writing “No hitting”, try “We keep ours hands to ourselves”. It’s also important to use “we” language. This rule applies to everyone in the house, not just your child. Once this is established, post it for everyone to see. Explain to your child what it means, especially if they are not yet able to read. This also applies to parents and siblings. If your family rule is that people speak to each other respectfully and Dad gets snippy, make an example and give Dad a “time out”. Your child needs to see that example.
2) Write up the consequence for breaking the rule: The fine should be just enough that it will make your child think twice, but cannot be excessive. I usually start with time out, and recommend making it 1 minute for every 1-2 years your child is (for example, if your child is 4 try a 2-3 minute time out). I have also used taking away the tablet, cartoons, etc. as a fine. If you’ve decided on time out, make sure to establish a place in the house for it. This place should be boring and where you can see your child. Some parents will also call this the “tranquility corner” to give it an even more positive spin.
3) Acknowledge when your child IS following the rule: for success in sleeping independently, there ALWAYS needs to be a reward. The night a child stays in their room and sleeps on their own, parents should always celebrate this success — give lots of hugs and kisses, and sometimes a small treat is acceptable as well. Parents must always reward when the child is doing well and following the rules. Even a verbal recognition can be a very good thing for your child to hear.
4) Be immediate when a fine needs to be dealt out: if your child has broken the rule, you may give one and ONLY one warning. Give your child the opportunity to make the right decision. If they call you on it and break the rule again, then the fine must be dealt out immediately. Be sympathetic when dealing out a fine — do not get angry or threaten/blackmail. Your child will not respond to this, and it is not respectful. Be as calm as possible and apologetic: “I’m sorry Sarah, but you broke the rule and now you need to go to time out.” Once the fine is paid, then just move on. Do not keep harping on it — your child has already been given the consequence.
5) Be consistent in applying these rules: Kids do not do well with gray area — they need things to be as black and white as possible. Be clear with the rules — they are applicable at all times. The rules don’t just apply within the four walls of your house. The rules apply out at the grocery store, dance class, play group, everywhere. If you have established this system, it has to be applied the same way each and every time. If time out is your fine, be consistent and keep to your agreement. Set a timer so that you and your child know timeout is exactly 2 minutes and not a second more. If a special toy is taken away as a fine, be consistent in how long it’s taken away for and when it can be earned back. Your child will learn quickly that mom or dad mean exactly what they say. This is the definition of establishing the boundary.
Remember, the goal is not the punishment. You are teaching your child simply what is acceptable behavior. I think it’s safe to say that everyone gets out of hand at some point, and the beauty of this system is that it gives your child the chance to calm themselves down and regroup on their own. It’s a way of showing your child respect and acknowledging how intelligent they really are. The kids I have used this system with often realize that by giving boundaries, we are not “suppressing” them. They want to have limits, even if they can’t exactly vocalize this. Everyone is more comfortable when they know exactly what to expect.
Now, I’ve just spent lots of time talking about the WORST case scenario. For this to work well, you must always keep the following in mind:
Focus on the positive.
If your child sees that you are happy with something that they are doing, they will just want to keep doing it. Getting praise and rewards is something that any child will look forward to, and they will want to show off what they can do. The reward system is not something that will last forever, either. It will eventually phase out, but that doesn’t mean they will revert to old behavior. It is an indication of their maturity.
This system can be followed any time that a new rule needs to be established. And, the good news is that once the first one is introduced in this way the rest are a piece of cake. As always, be consistent in your expectations and your child will succeed.