When my son Charlie turned 4, he basically stopped sleeping. I’m pretty sure this is a standard toddler/preschooler move, but it’s a tough one to take. Every single night, at some point between midnight and 2 AM, my husband and I would suddenly hear the pitter patter of his adorable little feet running down the hallway towards our room.
But those feet are decidedly less adorable at that hour of the night.
We tried everything we could think of to keep him in his own bed. We tried a fancy “toddler teaching clock” (he could not have been less interested). We tried repeatedly walking him back to his bed (we gave up after a full week of three-hour-long battles, during the worst of which he got out of bed what felt like 117 times). We tried “monster spray,” withholding television, installing a Batman nightlight, playing classical music at low volume in his room, keeping a flashlight on his bedside table, moving the family dog into his room so he wouldn’t be alone … nothing worked.
So we made the next logical move: straight-up bribery.
It started small. My husband explained to a thrilled and incredulous Charlie that if he slept in his bed all night until the sun came up, he could have three M&Ms. Yes, candy before breakfast! A little shocked and a lot excited, Charlie quickly agreed to the plan.
And that very first night, it worked! He slept beautifully all night long, proudly claiming his M&Ms in the morning. Every morning for a week, he earned his reward, and we hugged and kissed him and told him how proud we were of him and what a big boy he was becoming. My husband and I high-fived on the seventh morning, smugly congratulating ourselves on the parenting win.
Yep, the M&Ms worked … for exactly seven days. On the eighth night, at precisely 1:32 AM, we heard those little feet again.
The next morning, when we asked him why he’d gotten out of bed, he gave us his best puppy dog eyes and told us he didn’t think he liked M&Ms anymore. Maybe, instead, we could give him an Oreo? Just one Oreo? He was sure that one Oreo would be enough to help him remember to stay in bed.
(You’re shaking your head right now and thinking my husband and I are suckers, right? Yes. Yes, we are indeed.)
Oreos worked for five nights. Then, on Charlie’s suggestion, we upgraded to tiny Army action figures purchased in a set from the dollar bin at Target. He got one Army action figure for every night of sleep.
That worked until he had enough Army action figures to stage an elaborate battle on top of his dresser. Then suddenly, he couldn’t sleep anymore … but Charlie suggested that maybe a few Star Wars toys might help?
Even in our moderately sleep-deprived state, we weren’t total idiots; we sensed that this whole thing was getting out of hand. We explained that “Star Wars guys,” as he called them, were too expensive, and not an appropriate reward for sleeping, which was something that his body should be doing without a reward at this point, since he was such a big boy.
He said he understood. And then he immediately made a counter-offer: He’d sleep in his bed own for five nights to earn one Star Wars guy. Let me just pause here to remind you that he was a mere 4 years old at the time. My husband and I were kind of appalled, but also kind of impressed with his negotiating skills. So we agreed. This worked for a total of five Star Wars guys (25 beautiful nights of sleep!). But once the Millennium Falcon reached maximum guy capacity, he stopped sleeping again.
As you might imagine, the situation only escalated over the next few months. Among Charlie’s many and varied suggestions for rewards were: a LEGO police car set (valued at 20 nights of sleep), a trip to see a movie in a movie theater (valued at 14 nights of sleep), an entire vanilla layer cake (we said no to that one), “party shoes” (I never figured out what “party shoes” actually are), his own iPad (Noooooo!!!), and for his pièce de résistance, he promised to sleep in his bed every night for six months if we would convert our backyard into a replica of the Seattle Seahawks football field. (Seriously.)
When he offered up the football field option — as though it were a perfectly rational thing to suggest — my husband and I looked at each other and realized just how badly we were being had. We immediately scuttled the whole thing, stopped the bribes, and resigned ourselves to never sleeping again. Or at least, not until he grows out of this phase, which we’re thinking has to happen soon — right?
I suppose eventually he’ll go off to college … and then it’ll be his roommate’s problem to deal with.