This spring, we had an issue with our 5-year-old daughter and her sleeping habits.
To be specific, she went to sleep just fine (not in her bed but in a sleeping bag on the floor of my room, but that’s a whole different blog post), but she didn’t stay asleep.
An hour or two would go by, and she would wake up. Everyone wakes up through the night; the issue came from what happened next.
My daughter got out of her sleeping bag, every night, and trudged through the hallway, down the stairs, and plopped onto the couch. Usually, she moaned, I can’t go to sleep, and then she laid her head down and went to sleep.
On the couch.
Sometimes, my husband would pick her up and take her back to bed, but that invariably led to an explosion. She would cry and beg and then, when she realized things were not going to go her way, kaboom!
Everything came crashing down.
If you don’t have an explosive child, let me tell you what an explosion is like. She screams. She shakes. She hits and kicks and head-butts. Sometimes she laughs, not because it’s funny, but because she’s having these strong feelings and doesn’t know how else to deal with them. She’s unreasonable, unmanageable, almost unimaginable.
We’re working on these explosions with her therapist, Miss Julie. My daughter is super smart, but her emotional development is lagging. Her “appropriate ways to express frustration and anger” department isn’t quite where it should be.
The explosion always woke the baby up. It became a whole house fiasco with my husband trying to calm and comfort the baby, mitigate the older kid’s violence and get her back to bed, and me trying to ignore the fracas and get my work done. (Because I work full-time from home, and my work hours are in the evenings.)
After much trepidation and consultation with Miss Julie, I realized that my daughter wanted to spend time with me. She was getting out of bed because she felt like she never got my undivided attention (having a toddler sister and all), and she knew that I would be working but alone in the living room.
Armed with this knowledge, we decided to give her an incentive to stay in bed, a reward if she could stay in bed through the night for a whole week.
She had been waking up every single night, so a whole week seemed like an unreachable eternity. If it worked, though, if she stayed in bed, there would be no need to deal with the tantrums because there would be no tantrums.
Choosing a reward was easy. She didn’t want a new toy or a fancy dinner or a video game or even money. She wanted to be special. She wanted time devoted just to her.
The reward I proposed was a special date with just Daddy, me, and our 5-year-old. We promised her that we’d get a babysitter for the baby, and the three of us would do whatever she wanted for a whole afternoon.
In short, we rewarded her with undivided attention, time free from distraction.
The first day, we built her up. We told her that we knew she could do it.
Of course she stayed in bed every night. I had no doubt that she could do it if she chose to. Earning a special date made her choose to.
The special date was a wild success. She wanted to go for a boat ride, so we rented a row-boat at a state park. My husband rowed us all over the lake in the bright sunshine of a Saturday morning. We counted turtles on logs and picked leaves for my daughter’s leaf collection.
Afterwards, we went for ice cream together.
It couldn’t have worked better.
Her habit of getting out of bed interrupted, she stayed in bed through the night. That’s not to say she never woke up again, but it only happened occasionally after that. We never went back to nightly fights over going back to bed.