Bedtime Tantrums
Annette Nay, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2004


I have a 4 1/2 year old and a 2 1/2 year old and I am 3 months pregnant. Bedtime is so horrible that I find myself giving up. My 4 1/2 year old can eventually get to sleep, but my 2 1/2 year old son is horrible.

Every night he screams, throws things in his room and doesn't sleep in his bed.
He gets up about 5 times a night and bangs on the door to come out.

I need to get more than the 5 hours I am getting, but I don't know how to handle it. He slept great when he was in his crib, but the trouble started when I put him in a toddler bed. I am a strong person and I try to let him just scream it out so he will stop but he won't. He will scream for hours.
This keeps everyone up.

I feel like I am going to "lose it" with him, but I don't know what to do?
I take him to the doctor all the time to see if he has an ear infection or something, but he is always okay.

If I leave him in his room I am afraid that he will hurt himself. His newest thing is that he will bang his head on the floor. 

Please help.


The first thing that went wrong was that you gave into your child’s plea to be with you.  I know that the cries and pleadings of a small child can tear your heart out, especially if you are tired and under the stress of having two children and having another.  The answer to the problem in the beginning and now is being consistent in demanding that your children go to bed and go to sleep.

 Your child knows that if he cries long enough, causes a ruckus by tearing up his room, and beating his head on the floor, he will win and get you to relent and let him out. 

 Let’s breakdown the problem in the order of needs for your family and you. 

 Your child has found a good tool to get him what he wants.  It is the tantrum.  It is about at this age (Terrible-Two’s) when children employ this tool.  Your child has taken the tantrum to dangerous levels; that of hurting himself and destroying property.  The next step will be hurting others but throwing things at them or hitting them.  None of this can be allowed to happen. 

These three dangers set up a precedent of how the child will manage his future life, not only at bedtime, but throughout each day, unless he is stopped, consistently.

Here is an excellent article on tantrums.  To eliminate a problem, one must understand it fully. 




Copyright of Professor John Murtagh & The Australian Doctor


What are Childhood Tantrums?

Temper tantrums are a type of behavioral disorder in children -especially in toddlers -whose reaction to frustration is a dramatic display of temper. The tantrum can vary in time from 20-30 seconds to several hours.

The behavior can include:

·        Kicking or stamping the feet-

·        Shouting and screaming.

·        Throwing things.

·        Rolling around on the floor.

·        Banging the head.

·        Crying (without being hurt).

·        Holding the breath (which can be frightening).


Who has Tantrums and Why?

Any child can throw a tantrum. Tantrums are a feature of the so-called "terrible twos".

They usually start at 15-16 months of age (can be as early as 12 months) and may persist until 3-4 years.  Tantrums are more likely to occur if the child is tired or bored and feels angry or frustrated.

Reasons for this frustration may include:

·        Being told "no".

·        Things not going their way.

·        Difficulty managing a task.

·        Difficulty expressing what they want to say-

·        Their mother leaving them, even for a brief period

 Sometimes there is no obvious reason.  Tantrums may continue to occur if the child

gets what they want, often when parents or other caretakers reward them to seek peace and avoid conflict.  An example of this is when your child picks out a toy & from the shelf of a shop and demands, "I want it." You say "no" and return it.  The child gets upset and grabs the toy, shouting, "Mine! Mine!"   If you give in to avoid a scene and say, "You can have it just this time," the child gets the message that "no" can mean, "yes" if he protest strongly enough. So if the tantrum works, they are likely to recur.


What are the Principles of Management?

If necessary, parents should seek expert advice. It is important to keep a record of the reason for the tantrums.  Parents can be reassured that tantrums are relatively common and generally not harmful, unless they become violent or destructive.  Remember the saying, "temper tantrums need an audience."  When ignored, the problem will probably get worse for a few days before it starts to improve. Plan ahead to prevent tantrums.  Drugs have no place in the management of temper tantrums.


What are Helpful Rules to Follow?

·        Stay calm and say nothing.

·        Look away.

·        Move away.

·        Ignore what can be ignored.  Parents should pretend to ignore the behavior and leave the child alone without comment. This can include moving on to a different room and busy yourself with something else.

·        Be flexible.  Decide if the demands are reasonable before saying "yes" or "no" and stick to your decision. 

·        Avoid what is avoidable.  Try to avoid the cause or causes of tantrums where possible. 

·        Distract what is distractible: redirect the child's interest to some other object or activity that would interest them.

·        Use "time out."  Consider firm action by taking the child to a safe room or space and insist they be quiet (usually for two minutes) before they come out of "time out."

·        Make some realistic and firm rules to follow.  Keep the child busy with activities in circumstances conducive to boredom and disruption. 

·        Praise appropriate behavior as soon as it occurs.


What is a Breath-Holding Attack?

Breath-holding attacks occur in response to the child becoming upset, such as during a tantrum. They will let out a brief cry and then hold their breath.  The attacks are quite frightening, as the child will become pale and then blue and may lose consciousness, when they should be placed in the coma position.  The whole episode usually lasts 10-60 seconds and is self-limiting and not harmful.  The child will start breathing again.  These attacks occur in the age group six months to six years but are most common from 2-3 years.


I am assuming that you took your child out of his crib, and put him in a youth bed because you were getting ready for the new baby.  Usually this is exactly what you should do, but in this case, to keep your child safe and property in good condition, you will need to incarcerate him in the crib.  This may mean that you will have to get a small basinet for the new baby, until your child can be trained to stay in his youth bed.  You may want to check second hand stores for the basinet so you will not be out too much money for this purchase.


Two year olds and older are expert in climbing out of their beds, even with the sides up, so I highly suggest the use of a crib topper, which can be purchased at most major department stores.  They are somewhat expensive, but about the only solution you have that will keep your child safely in his bed.  Also, the crib sides may need to be padded with foam padding to render the head banging ineffective if this behavior occurs in the crib.  So the padding doesn’t make the crib look bad, you can cover the foam padding with a colorful material and secure it to the sides of the crib with attached ties which would be secured on the outside of the crib and away from the childs reach.  If this is more expense that you want to occur, then a colored duct tape could be used that best matches the crib to wind around the padding and the crib sides.



If the head banging exists during the day, a cycling safety helmet can be used so keep your child safe so the head banging can be ignored.  They are relatively inexpensive, lightweight, and can be purchased at most major department stores or cycling shops.  Remember, a tantrum doesn’t do any good if there is not one there to pay attention to it! 

When the child’s bad behavior is extinguished and his good behavior becomes stable, you can then reward his good behavior by moving him to his “big boy bed” (the youth bed) with the special incentive of having either a homemade or store bought bed tent for youths. You will need one of these for the older child as well or there will be behavioral problems from him as well!  Both tents must be ready to use simultaneously for the boys to use.

If homemade, you can include the children in making their tents.  This makes them invested in the project and makes it personally theirs.  Permanent magic markers or fabric paints can be used to decorate/design their tents.  This will take a lot of supervision, one parent per child. 

Sporting good stores have the shock-corded tent poles that you will need to make the dome of the tents.  The corners of the tents, as you see in the pictures, are secured to the bed with wide elastic that can be purchased, cheaply, at cloth stores or most department stores.


When your child misbehaves by not staying in his bed, then you tell him that you are sorry he chose not to stay in his special “big boy tent bed.”  Since he is not staying in his special bed, he is acting like a baby and has to be put back into the baby bed until he can act like a big boy and stay in the big boy tent. 

He is then un-ceremonially removed from the tent bed, despite any protestations, and put into the crib with the crib topper.  Tell him he can have the chance to use the “big boy tent bed” tomorrow night. 

When he is put back into the “big boy tent bed,” the next night, tell him that he is a big boy now and you know that he can act like a big boy and stay in the tent.  If he chooses stay in his tent bed and go to sleep, then he gets to sleep there, instead of in the baby bed.  If he chooses to act like a baby and gets out of bed, then you will have to put you in the baby bed for the night. 

Be sure to reinforce his good behavior by telling him how proud you are of him.  Let the child witness you tell  significant others, how proud you are of him and why!  Tell him that since he was such a big boy that he will be able to use his tent through the day and to sleep in that night.

If the child has not earned the right to use the tent bed at night, the tent bed it must come down during the day, so he cannot use it to play in during the day.  Children at this age love special spaces that they can get into to play and hide.  That is why the tent bed is such a huge positive reinforcement or negative one, depending on whether or not he gets to use it.  The good news is that tent beds are quick and easy to put up and take down.

In due time, your child will have to be allowed to get out of bed to go to the bathroom when he is potty trained.  By this time, hopefully your child will be trained to stay in bed and go to sleep.  Your bedtime pep talk should tell him of your expectations for his behavior, in getting out of bed and using the potty.  Explain that you expect him to go straight to the potty, do his business, and get straight back to bed and asleep.  Otherwise, he has to go back to the baby bed.  Obviously, that means that the training pants go back on, because you do not want to be answering his calls all night long, to go to the potty., which he will surely use as a ruse to get you to spend time with him.

Be consistent!  If you give in even once, you have just reinforced the idea that if he cries loud or long enough or misbehaves, he will get what he wants.  He has come to realize that his crying, trashing the place, and banging his head are tools to get him what he wants. 

A behavior only exists because it gets the child what he wants!

 When a tool is not working, the child tries even harder to make it work.  Finally, he gives up, if you’re consistent in not giving in.  The child hates to loose a good tool and will periodically try it again to see if it has gotten its power back.

 The worst thing a parent can do, in any situation, is to give in intermittently. This is particularly so when dealing with tantrums of any kind, especially when they are physically violent or vandalize property.  Intermittent reinforcement tells the child that if he tries long enough, he will eventually get what he wants.  Intermittent reinforcement guarantees that the bad behavior will never be extinguished.

 As always, be careful that the child is not ill or hurt in some way, before you ignore his bad behaviors.  If you have to check on him, make your visit brief and bluntly state your expectation of him and leave immediately.  Your visits should be the exception not the rule.  Another words for emergencies only, as any attention will be recognized by the child is reinforcement for his bad behavior.

It is a sound practice that you have adopted in taking your child to be checked by your physician, to make sure he does not have a physical reason for his behavior.  It is better to be safe than sorry, in this instance.  If there is any question in your mind that he may be ill or in pain for some reason, then take him again.  Then you have a better idea of whether this is a tantrum or not.

If your child has not used the tantrum during the daytime, he is sure to try it in the near future.  The best negative reinforcement tool you have is “Timeout.”  It is most effective when it takes place in an environment that holds no stimulation of any kind, neither the vision of nor contact with people or things to play with. 

The following article outlines the effective use of “Timeout” when in groups or at home.


How to Use "Time Out" For Children in Groups

Annette Nay, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2003

When a child is put into "Time Out", the s/he is removed and kept separate out of sight from the group and their activities.

The amount of time spent in Time-Out is determined by the child's age times 2.

Someone is left to inconspicuously watch the child.

The child is instructed, in understandable terminology, to:

1. Be quiet and think of :

*Why his or her actions are disruptive or dangerous to the group/ himself or herself.

*Acceptable behavior s/he could have used.

*Think of personal or other resources to help her or him to choose acceptable behavior.

2. The child is debrief privately at the end of Time-out.

*Discuss with the child:

a. Why his or her actions are disruptive or dangerous to the group/

himself or herself.

b. Acceptable behavior s/he could have used.

c. Think of personal or other resources to help her or him to choose

acceptable behavior.

3. Have the child resolve to use resources keep him or her out of trouble and choose better behavior.

Example: Joey got angry at a child for taking his hat and hit him. Help Joey to realize his resources and to choose which of these would be his best choice or choices to use next time and why.


When Joey comes out of Time-Out he is debriefed, privately...


Using self as a resource:

You ask: "Joey, if you were angry again, what could you do?" . . .

Lead Joey to say, "I could ignore the other child."

"Ask him nicely to return it."

Using adults as a resource:

You ask: "Joey, how could you use an adult/teacher to help you?

Lead Joey to say, "I could tell the teacher what is happening."

"Why would you tell a teacher?"

Lead Joey to say, "It would get ___ in trouble for his choice of behavior instead of me for a bad choice of behavior."


Using friends as a resource:

You ask: " Joey, how could you use your friends to help you get your hat back so none of you would get in to trouble?"

Lead Joey to say, "I could ask them to tell ____to give me back my hat."

4. A reminder to the child of his or her resources when this same trouble begins to occur would be a great help to change the child's behavior. Help the child work through the resources so solve the problem before it warrants Time-out.

Special Note

If Time-Out is not working then you are allowing something to amuse the child at Time-Out. Time-Out should be a boring sterile environment. We are trying to bore the child into obedience.

All tantrums are ignored unless they are violent and/or an endangerment to self, others or property. Without making a big deal of it, quickly remove the child to a more protective place and continue Time-Out. Tantrums are of no use unless they have an audience. A behavior exist because it fulfills and want or a need. When it the behavior does no get the individual what is wanted or needed it will eventually be abandoned. However the behavior will exacerbate before it is abandon.

Example: A person puts a quarter into a candy machine. The machine gives out no candy. The person first politely pulls the knobs, but finishes this behavior by bashing and kicking the machine before he stops and walks away.

The worst thing you can do is reinforce a consequence intermittently. That tells the child that they have a chance to get away this behavior, therefore they can continue the behavior because they have a chance to get away with it.

This is like the individual that feeds copious amounts of quarters into the jackpot gambling machine in Los Vegas because his or her behavior is rewarded intermittently.

**So be consistent or be ready to deal with the lousy behavior continuously.**


How to Use "Time Out" at Home

Basically follow the same techniques that are listed in Time-out in groups. Review the material.

Remove the child a little ways from the rest of the family and what they are doing, to a boring but safe place. This area should be far enough away that the child is not bothering others and they are not bothering him or her. Maintain surveillance on the child while being with the rest of the family group.

When the problem arises for the . . .

First Time: The child is told "If you choose to do _____ again you will spend five minutes in 'Time Out." (The time spent in time should be calculated by age times 2.)

Second Time: The child spends five minutes in "Time Out". At the end of "Time Out", s/he is told if s/he chooses to behave this way again s/he will an additional

(age X 2) minutes in "Time Out."

Continue to put the child into time-out each time they misbehave. The bad behavior will be consistent until they learn that:

1) You will consistently give them a time-out.

2) This type of behavior is not going to benefit them any further.

Once they realize these two ideas, the behavior will change. The child will try this bad behavior again to see if you are going to be consistent in giving a time-out.



It will take time for the implementation of these suggestions to take effect, but just starting them and being consistent will allow you to see the light at the end of the tunnel, in that there will be an end to these bad behaviors in time. 

You can hurry the end result by not letting your child make up his sleep time during the daylight hours.  You are probably allowing him to catch up on his sleep during the day, which allows him to keep you awake all night.  By keeping him up during the day, he will be very tired, ugly, but quite ready to go to sleep that night.   Keeping him up when he is tired and cranky will be extremely hard work for you, especially when you both have been up all night, but it will work to your advantage that very night.   Both of you will be tired and sleep.

Make plans to spend a positive good time with him. Plan fun things to do and that will wear him out! 

If he sleeps through the night, then make sure he gets a solid 1 1/2 to 2 hour nap in the afternoon, so he will be a happy child through the day.  Make sure that he does not oversleep so that he gets rested enough to ruin his and your rest that night. 

Set him up on a scheduled nap that happens at the same time every day about 12:30 PM to 2:30 PM.  This is about the middle of his day so he has had his lunch and can get just enough rest to make it through the rest of the day, but not so close to bedtime, that it he is not tired enough to go to sleep at night.   Keeping to this schedule is very important so you get your rest!

I hope these suggestions will eliminate the problems your having with your child.  If applied consistently, they should also help with any future problem you might have with your children.

If I can be of further help, please write.


Annette Nay, Ph.D.

Annette Nay Homepage

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