Set Limits at Bedtime

I have mentioned several times how important it is to set limits on toddler behavior around bed time. But I haven’t fully explained why limits are so important to parenting in general and to bedtime routines in particular.

Why You Need To Set Limits: The Dark Room Story

I want you to imagine you live in a large room. The room is completely dark. No lights in the ceiling, no lamps, no pocket flashlights. Complete darkness.
You need to move about in this room, so what do you do? You walk slowly with your hands out, feeling for the walls. When you find the walls you keep a hand on them as you move to maintain your balance and to keep you from banging into anything. You need to know where the walls are in order stay oriented.

There’s one more important feature of the dark room. A guardian holds the walls in place, making sure they do not move.

The Walls of Can Do and Can’t Do

For a toddler, the world is one big dark room.

There are several sets of walls in the child’s room. Maybe we can think of them as boundaries. One is a literal set of walls, gates and safety locks that keep a child from harming herself. And another set is a metaphoric set of walls: the walls of proper behavior.

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A child has a natural desire, probably innate (created or evolved, as you prefer) to know what is and is not okay to do. She doesn’t ask for reasons and explanations, neither does she need them. The need to know why things are right and wrong develops later in childhood.


This need has two desires: to know the “location” of the boundary between okay and not okay, and to know that the boundary is being guarded. Very early in life the child designates a “Setter of Limits”, usually one parent (although some children look to more than one person as a designated limits setter.)

The Guardian Nods

Now, back in your dark room, imagine that the guardian of the walls goes to sleep and the walls magically move or worse, disappear. What happens when you reach out to feel for the wall and it isn’t there? For certain you will become disoriented. You may feel as though you’re lost in your own room. That’s an anxiety-provoking situation!

This is what happens to a child whose designated limits setter either cannot or will not set limits and enforce them. Rather than feeling liberated and elated, the child is more likely to feel disoriented, lost and anxious. Children need to know that the boundaries of right and wrong are being guarded by you just as much as the person in the dark room needs to know that the walls will stay in the same place.

Testing the Limits

This is why children test their parent’s limits. This is why they stare fixedly at you as they slowly push the bowl of cereal to the edge of the high chair and over on to the floor.  They are looking for a particular response from you. And the response they are looking for is “No. Do not do that.” Then she smiles and laughs.

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It’s around here somewhere…

So what is the smile and the laugh all about? Are they being little devils? Are they just bad kids? No. Neither. The smile is not the smile of impishness, it’s the smile of true happiness. The child is happy that she has reached out and felt the wall. She’s happy because the walls are being guarded. She feels safe and secure and happy.

Again and Again and Again and Again

OK, wise guy, you say: if all she wants to know is that I’m guarding the walls, how come she has to knock the bowl over repeatedly? Doesn’t she get the message? Why isn’t she happy with one demonstration and leave it at that?

This is because of another endearing feature of our little ones: their pleasure response does not dampen easily. If you make a funny face that amuses her, she will laugh. Then if you stop and make the same face. She’ll laugh again. Try it: toddlers can keep this up for an hour. You’ll get bored with it long before she does. They never get tired of pleasurable stimuli. This is why they test limits repeatedly. It feels good to know you’re there and you’re in charge.

Now, what happens if the child knocks the bowl of cereal off the table and the limits setter just shrugs and ignores it? Wait, she says, You were supposed to say “No! Don’t do that!” Why did you stop guarding the wall? Even if you are totally bored with the game, you must play it or risk confusing her, or worse, making her anxious. If you truly are bored, or exasperated, you must “set limits on the limits setting”, and divert her attention to something else. Pick her up from the high chair. Distract her with some new activity. Anything but abandon your limits setting post!set limits 3

Set Limits at Bedtime

The same principle apply at bedtime. You’ve paid attention to her cues and figured out at good time to begin the bedtime routine. Everything that happens between dinner and night-night is regular and predictable. Now is the time when she may test the limits because she’s tired and she really really needs to know that you are there guarding the boundaries of her world. More so now than perhaps any other time of day.

  • When she tests the limits, give her the answer she wants to hear (“no”) calmly and matter-of-factly.
  • Try hard not to deviate from your routine. Toddlers do better with routines. People do better with routines! Start the routine at dinner, or one hour before bed, which ever is longer.
  • If you think you are going to lose your cool and you can’t take any more of her limits testing, re-direct her attention elsewhere. Trust me. This trick works!

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Rob Lindeman

Rob Lindeman is a sleep coach, entrepreneur, and writer living in Massachusetts. Ready to Get Rid of the Pacifier? Sign up for our FREE Video eCourse: The Paci-Free Method

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