Child Development

The Psychological Effects Of Locking A Child In Their Room At Night

When toddlers start a-roaming, it can be tempting to lock them in their bedroom. But it’s a terrible idea.

by Matthew Utley
Originally Published: 
Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images, Shutterstock

Locking a toddler in their room at night after they transition to a toddler bed might be tempting. It’s a last resort solution when a child is causing sleepless nights by refusing to stay in bed or simply refusing to be alone. Unfortunately, the psychological effects and behavioral outcomes of locking a child in their room makes the practice a terrible idea.

“It’s not okay to lock kids in their room,” says Lynelle Schneeberg, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, Yale educator, and Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Besides the fact that with a well-thought-out gentle behavioral plan, it is not necessary, there is also the vital reason of safety. If there is a fire or some sort of dangerous occurrence in the home, it is possible that the child would not be able to get out of the room or the home.”

Locking a child’s bedroom door is a violation of many fire codes and can be a pretty big red flag for child protective services. And yet, with a particularly determined child in the throes of a sleep regression, it may be necessary to restrict their ability to leave the room, at least for a little while.

Sleep regression doesn’t just happen with infants; once toddlers are in beds they can leave whenever they please, their sleep routine starts to degrade. They often require some additional sleep training. There are numerous methods, and parents should find the right system for their kid, but the end goal is the same: Give the kid what they need to put themselves to sleep and stay asleep. Which means that mom or dad are going to, eventually, leave the room before the kid conks out. Which mean that the kid is going to want to clamber out of that bed and go where their parents are.

But there are better options than locking a child in their room. “A gate or Dutch door is useful during this process so that the child isn’t able to leave the room to find another parent or to try to play in the living room and so on,” suggests Schneeberg. “Also, once the parent is out of the picture at bedtime, a gate or Dutch door helps to keep the child from making ‘curtain calls,’ or trips out of the room to stall at bedtime or to find a parent again. Most kids don’t like to have their doors closed, so the gate or Dutch door allows parents to have this control while still allowing the child to feel that she is not closed off in her room.”

A Dutch door — also known as a stable door — has a top that can open and close independently of the bottom. Kids can see out, and don’t feel as isolated. And parents can easily remove gates or open the door after the child is asleep.

If kids move around for other reasons — they wake up in the middle of the night due to nightmares or perhaps they sleepwalk — there are other options as well.

“If a parent needs to know if or when a child is on the move at night, a motion sensor is always a wonderful choice,” Schneeberg says. Motion sensors are easy to install — some simply hang on the door knob — and notify parents via an app. Even a good baby monitor has motion detection tech nowadays.

The best solution for a wandering toddler, though, is to find a sleep ritual that works for them. It’s not unreasonable to start priming a kid for bedtime hours before; even something as simple as changing the lighting can make a noticeable difference. It’s not difficult either. Parents know when kids are getting tired — a good sleep ritual lets the kids know, too. And once the child starts to get a good night’s sleep, the parents can too.

Are Bedroom Door Locks for Kids Okay?

  • Locking a child’s door is a fire hazard. It may also earn parents a visit from child protective services.
  • Gates and Dutch doors are safer options and less alienating for the toddler.
  • Motion alarms can also tell parents when kids make a break for it, and they are easy to implement.
  • A good sleep ritual can help toddlers learn to soothe themselves to sleep, and that is a better outcome than door locks, gates, monitors, or alarms.

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