The Excuse-Me Drill: How do I help my toddler stay in bed without calling for me?
Is your toddler calling for you after lights out? It’s hard for many children to tune out and go to sleep. A sleep-friendly room needs to be boring – calm, quiet, and dark. In other words, nothing too exciting or distracting going on. Unfortunately, some young children find a boring environment unpleasant, much like a “time-out.” In fact, the bedtime routine or the bedroom itself may set off misbehavior. This is similar to what happens during a long, boring car ride or when a parent is on the phone. Children realize that staying quietly in bed simply does not get anyone’s attention. Instead, they learn to do all sorts of things to get attention, in ways that are the exact opposite of calm, quiet, and still. Often, they leave their room and/or do things uniquely crafted and finely tuned to recruit parents into their bedroom. Young children are smart! During these “curtain calls,” children may ask (many, many times) for extra drinks, hugs, kisses, or display a sudden interest in how clouds are formed. Upon delivering the sixteenth glass of water at bedtime, most parents realize that it’s not a thirst for water that the child is trying to quench. Instead, they have figured out the key to getting you back into their room!
So, what can you do to help your child stop asking for extra things and staying in bed? Try the Excuse-Me Drill.
The Excuse-Me Drill (EMD) can reduce bedtime behavior problems in young children. It’s best for children 2– to 6-years-old who have moved from the crib to a bed. In some bedtime behavior strategies, you only ignore behaviors you think are inappropriate. But, when you use the EMD, you also teach your child what TO DO at bedtime and encourage it. With the EMD, you will frequently enter your child’s bedroom to strategically give brief bursts of attention when your child is well-behaved. When your child is inappropriate (such as tantrums, frequent requests, curtain calls – those requests for water), you ignore these behaviors. They interfere with sleep! This way, you’re giving attention to what you want to see more of (calm, quiet child in bed) and not giving attention to what want to see less of (tantrums, lots of requests, conversations about clouds, etc.). When you are ignoring inappropriate behavior, be sure to also monitor your child to make sure she is safe.
Step 1. After your bedtime routine, tuck your child into bed and turn the lights off. Once she is in bed, say “excuse me, but I need to go [insert any reason that makes sense to you and your family – for example, you might say “wash the dishes” or “brush my teeth” or “feed the dog”]…….., I can come right back to check on you if you are quiet and stay in your bed.” You might need to adjust the rules for your child. For example, if you really want her to stay in bed but you don’t mind if she sings or talks, you might tell her that you will come back in if she stays in bed and leave out the quiet part. It’s up to you!
Step 2. Once you leave, return quickly before your child has the opportunity to call out for you or to misbehave, even if it’s only 30 seconds later. Give your child the kinds of positive attention that she likes. This might be physical affection such as hugs and kisses and/or verbal praise and love for being “a big boy/girl,” and “staying quietly in your bed.” When you give verbal attention, be sure to label what your child is doing that you like when you praise her – in this case, it likely has to do with staying in bed quietly.
Step 3. Continue to walk into your child’s room when she is calm, quiet, and remaining in bed. Each time that you do, provide attention, a calm touch, and/or verbal praise. Instead of going in every few minutes on a specific, regular schedule, make these check-in trips irregular and somewhat unpredictable for your child in terms of how often and when you pop in to catch them lying quietly in bed and give attention. For example, try not to get into the habit of going in every 30 seconds, or every 2 minutes. Instead, change it up! In many cases, it can actually work better to give attention at random times as long as when you give the attention your child is doing what you want her to do. Over the course of the night and over several days you can gradually increase how long you stay out of the room overall. Keep your in-room visits brief (15 seconds or so), and make sure you are out of your child’s bedroom at the moment she falls asleep to help foster falling asleep independently.
If your child leaves the room, gently and quietly return her to her bed without any conversation, or by simply saying “it’s bedtime.” Return quickly again once your child is quiet in bed, give positive attention, and start again with EMD steps above. If you find that your child is making many requests, you can consider using a bedtime pass. You can use that instead of the EMD or along with it.