How to Handle Jack-in-the-Box Syndrome

Today, Amy Lage shares wisdom on how to handle Jack-in-the-Box syndrome:

The kids are in bed and you have just settled on the couch to relax when you hear the pitter patter of little feet. No! What is your little one doing out of bed? You give him a glass of water and tuck him back in. Phew. Oh wait, he’s back. Let’s try this again. Or perhaps your child goes to bed just fine, but then you wake up to warm breath on your cheek or her tiny feet jabbing into your back. Your child just won’t stay in his bed.

Does this sound familiar? If so, your child has “Jack-in-the-Box syndrome” -- defined as a child who repeatedly comes out of bed at bedtime or during the middle of the night. Sounds serious right? But fear not, there is a cure! Today I'm going to share a little context, then give you 3 steps to get past this common sleep issue.

A Big Kid Bed is a Big Kid Responsibility

Your child's ability to stay in bed is hinged to the reality of whether they're actually ready to be in a big kid bed. Being in a big kid bed is a big kid responsibility and it's important not to transition from crib to bed before they're truly ready for this new independence. For most kids, this transition is around age 3 because they need to be at a developmental point where they can understand rules and follow them, and also handle having the security and safety of their crib removed. So, to avoid frustration all sides, wait until your child is ready for this new milestone before making the big move.

Step #1: Call a Family Meeting

Little kids are egocentric (this is developmentally appropriate!) and love to be the star of the show. This is part of why they come out of their bed in the first place – for your attention! Use this trait to your advantage. At a non-sleep time, call a family meeting where your child and his/her sleep is the agenda item. Explain why sleep is important and that when he does not stay in his bed, no one is the family is getting the sleep they need. Also explain that there will be some new “Sleep Rules” to help everyone, and that if he does not follow the rules, then you will walk him back to his bed each time he comes out without any talking.

Step #2: Set the Sleep Rules

Toddlers and preschoolers often fight against rules, but actually crave them as a sign of safety. Many parents share that their kids always follow the rules about naptime at school or daycare; this is because their teachers enforce the rules consistently. Create "Sleep Rules" together on a piece of poster board, detailing bedtime routine and overnight behavior. For example: “I will brush my teeth, read one book, have two sips of water, go to the potty, get into bed, and stay there until mom or dad (or My Tot Clock if you choose to use one) tells me it is OK to be awake and out of bed. If I get out of my bed before it is time to be awake, mom or dad will quietly walk me back to my bed with no talking.” Be realistic with your rules and only include rules that you will 100% enforce. Also be specific and quantify things so there is no question about your expectations. Let your child decorate the posterboard if they wish.

Step #3: Putting it All Into Play

Every night before bed, read the "Sleep Rules" together to remind your child of your expectations for both bedtime and overnight.  If/when he comes of his bed take him by the hand with absolutely no talking or eye contact (remember he is coming out of his bed for attention and if you give any at all negative or positive – it will give him a reason to come out again) and walk him back to bed. You can assist him into his bed and replace the covers if needed, but no snuggles, hugs, kisses, etc. Once he is in bed, leave the room right away. This trip should be all business. Do this each and every time he comes out of his bed. The first night, you may have to bring him back to his room 30 times but if you stay 100% consistent and do this without giving any attention at all during the returns, after just a few days your child will be a Jack-in-the-bed!

Amy Lage is a contributing writer at Boston Mamas, a certified pediatric sleep consultant, and founder of Well Rested Baby. If you have questions you'd like to have Amy address in a future column, e-mail with your question!