My preschooler plays after bedtime

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist


My 3-year-old has discovered that if he is quiet he can play in his room after we have put him to bed. We go in numerous times to put him back to bed and scold him, but he continues to do this. This has been going on for a couple of weeks, and I am concerned about the amount of sleep he is getting. How can we change his behavior?


Once the transition from the crib to the “big-kid bed” occurs, all kinds of problems can emerge. Some little ones don’t feel as comfortable without the security of a crib and thus have difficulty settling down for the night or falling asleep. Others revel in their newfound freedom and simply won’t stay in bed: They might climb into their parents’ bed during the night, explore the house without supervision or play in their room, as your son is doing. Not only is this frustrating for parents, but it can also be dangerous if a child has access to the rest of the home.

A couple of rather drastic ideas spring quickly to mind. One is for you or your husband to sit where you can observe your son after you put him to bed. If he knows you can see him, he will be more likely to stay in his bed and fall asleep. This option takes patience and can create another issue if you have other things you need to do. Also, do not interact with him while you’re there, as he will love that. Another option is to put a baby gate across his doorway and remove his toys from the room so that when he gets up, he has nothing to play with and can’t get out. These options are both kind of negative and sound like a lot of work!

There is a more positive way to handle this. What you have described is a simple behavior, and children tend to repeat behaviors for which the consequences are rewarding. They tend not to repeat behaviors for which the consequences are negative. Right now the reward (playing) is much stronger for your little boy than the negative (scolding), so it makes sense that he’s repeating the behavior over and over. The first thing you need to do is change your focus: Instead of punishing him for getting out of bed (negative), reward him for staying in bed (positive).

Now, you have to find a way to make staying in bed more rewarding for your son. After you tuck him in and tell him goodnight, remind your child that bedtime is sleep time and that he is to stay in his bed all night. Then go back at brief intervals (every 5 to 10 minutes at first); if he is still in bed, he gets a kiss and verbal praise: “What a big boy you are, staying in your bed!” or “Great job — staying in your bed is awesome!” Then tell him goodnight again. Keep going back at these intervals until he is asleep. Gradually decrease the check-ins with the goal of having him fall asleep with no return visits from you. It may take just a few days, or as long as a couple of weeks. Keep in mind that this is easier said than done — you must be consistent and persistent.

Finally, regarding the issue of whether your son is getting enough sleep — a quick call to your pediatrician will help ease your mind.

Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.