I locked our toddler in his room every night to save my marriage
Some will call him a monster. A few will applaud. When MARTIN DAUBNEY's three-year-old refused to stay in bed, he resorted to drastic measures...
The overbearing sense of shame and guilt that swept over me the first night I locked my toddler son inside his bedroom will never leave me.
Hugging my partner Diana, who, like me, was in floods of tears, we listened while our precious boy Sonny flung himself round the room like a whirling dervish, and screamed like a caged animal behind his bolted door.
But despite the heartbreaking sounds of his distress, I turned away and led Diana by the hand downstairs.
If someone had told me before my son was born that I would find myself bolting him in his room at night, let alone issuing an ultimatum to my partner that I would move out if she didn’t agree, I never would have believed them. I would have found it abhorrent.
I am aware that admitting to this is breaking a major parenting taboo and I fully expect to be vilified. But, before anyone judges me, perhaps they should read my story.
For the previous six exhausting months, Sonny, then three, had refused to stay in bed for more than a few minutes at a time, even in the middle of the night. We’d been to doctor, read endless books, and taken counsel from parents and friends.
Everything had failed. We had failed. Truly, we were at breaking point. It’s no exaggeration to say we were on the brink of losing our relationship, health and sanity. A child refusing to stay put at night sounds so harmless, until you’ve experienced it. Take the night that precipitated my ultimatum. Diana had got up and put Sonny back to bed 37 times, but every single time he got up, opened his bedroom door and came out.
Finally, Diana collapsed on the landing floor, holding Sonny’s door handle shut as he screamed and pulled and twisted at it from inside.
I knelt beside her and held her as we both sobbed. It was by far the lowest point in our experience of parenthood. If I could have pressed a button and made Sonny go away, at that moment I would have. I hated myself for thinking it, but it was the truth.
Desperate, the next morning I gave Diana a choice: ‘I cannot live like this any more. Either we put a lock on his door, or I am moving out into a hotel.’
Reluctantly, she agreed. Exhausted from months of fractured sleep and on the verge of separation, we had reached rock bottom. We were constantly ill with flu, and a few days previously I’d fallen asleep in a meeting as I tried to close a £1 million deal to launch a website.
It was worse than when Sonny was a newborn and woke every couple of hours. At least then a feed, change or comfort achieved something positive.
Sonny was two-and-a-half when his desire to escape his cot became a serious issue. He is tall and strong for his age, and mastered the art of climbing over the bars.
At first, zipping him into a toddler’s sleeping bag acted as a humane restraint, as it meant he couldn’t get his leg on to the top rung. But he soon worked out how to unzip the bag and extricate himself. Then, one morning shortly before his third birthday, we were woken by the sound of him crashing to the floor. In an attempt to get out, he’d fallen over the side — and we knew it was time for his first proper bed.
But that’s when the trouble really started. At bedtime, Sonny would charge out of bed as we tried to leave his room, yanking the rattly door handle and opening the door.
At first, when we heard the rattling sound one of us would patiently lead him back to bed, then kiss and cuddle him back to sleep.
But he became clingy, and would go berserk when we tried to leave, waking at the tiniest movement. He’d scream until we came back, or wander downstairs to find us.
This would happen five or six times before he fell asleep. It made evening relaxation time impossible.
When we crept past his room to bed, our nerves already frazzled, Sonny would wake at the tiniest squeak of a floorboard, and the agonising process would start again.
After maybe another hour of repeatedly putting him back to bed he would fall asleep, only to wake in the night and repeat the entire performance.
We installed a stair gate just outside his room, so that when he opened his door, at least he couldn’t get out. But Sonny would violently shake the gate and yell like an imprisoned convict.
We even tried letting him cry himself out, but it seemed cruel and we were petrified our neighbours might hear.
Would they think less of us? Or call the authorities?
Yet there was worse to come. Sonny was blessed, or rather cursed, with escapologist skills to rival Houdini’s.
Predictably, he soon learned to undo his stair gate, and in the middle of the night would blunder up and down stairs in darkness. To him, this was an exciting new game. But, as we live in a three-storey house, danger was everywhere.
Heaven knows how he did it, but one time he even made it down two flights of stairs in his sleeping bag. We were woken by the sound of the dishwasher crashing open.
So long as we woke immediately, it was fine. But what if we didn’t?
Then, in June this year, my mum came straight out with it. ‘Take his door handle off and put a lock on the outside of his door,’ she said. ‘He’ll soon learn he can’t get out and stay in bed.
‘I locked you in your room. You wouldn’t stop wandering into our room. Everybody did it back then. And it worked.’
This was the first I’d heard of it, yet, amazingly, when I asked around I discovered other family members had done it with their children, too. I was shocked, but I could see the logic. Diana, however, was resolutely against. ‘It’s cruel and might traumatise him,’ she said. ‘It’s not fair.’
‘Not fair?’ I replied. ‘On who? We haven’t slept in months. We’re ill and argue all the time. Besides, he won’t even remember it.’
But Diana remained steadfast. ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Then you can deal with it. I’m sleeping in the spare room tonight.’
Over the next four days, I spent hours visiting parenting websites and discovered that the topic is one of the most contentious and emotive in all of parenting.
Mums who admitted to the practice — which is not illegal in Britain — were left devastated by the online vilification they received. Comments ranged from the unhelpful ‘Are you out of your mind?’ to the more extreme ‘This is child abuse!’ One of the typical arguments against locking a child’s door is what happens if there is a house fire and your baby can’t escape? One person even commented: ‘If they burn alive, you will have blood on your hands.’
But when I researched it further, I discovered firefighters prefer it if the child is in their room, as it makes them easier to locate. And it’s not like a small child would be able to let himself out of a locked house anyway.
Other parents we know were effectively locking their children in their rooms anyway, because higher door handles were out of their child’s reach. Yet even they smarted at the suggestion I bolt Sonny’s door from the outside.
Even among professionals, the technique prompts strong feelings. Clinical child psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin is vehemently against the practice.
‘You have to put the well-being of the child first,’ she says. ‘When children refuse to be separated from a parent at bedtime, you have to look at the reasons why.
‘Is it because they are being awkward and controlling — or is it because of anxiety or fear?
‘Feeling trapped, out of control and helpless are terrifying emotions for a child. Closing a door on them can increase those feelings twentyfold.
‘Children who are screaming at a closed door can be filled with so many stress hormones they will be incapable of functioning the next day.’
Diana and I continued to prevaricate, even when things got serious one night after Sonny climbed over his stair gate and made his way down two flights to the kitchen. I was awoken by a huge crash and leapt out of bed — convinced we had a burglar in the house. I raced into the kitchen ready to fly at our ‘intruder’, only to find Sonny sobbing on the kitchen floor with the ironing board toppled over next to him.
I was filled with terrifying thoughts. What if I’d gone in flailing? Could I have harmed or killed my own child? Could he have harmed or killed himself?
But, despite telling Diana that locking him in would be for his own safety, she still insisted it was too cruel.
Three months later, however, came the night when Diana and I broke down. It took me threatening to move out before she agreed to a trial period of locking his door for one week.
Removing the handle and drilling the holes in Sonny’s doorframe to fit the small sliding bolt I’d removed from our loo door was a dark moment. The noise it made as it clunked shut ran against every positive sense of nurturing.
The first night was an utter nightmare. We put him to bed as usual, but as we hurried out and I bolted the door, his cry of ‘No, no!’ was followed by him thundering across the room and hammering his fists on the inside of the door.
We’d left a blanket and pillow just inside, as people had recommended. He was fed, watered, warm and had a fresh nappy. There was nothing more we could do; comforting him would only prolong the agony. Yet still we felt like prison wardens.
Sonny cried his lungs out for three solid hours, a hideous, guttural sound that haunts me to this day. In the morning, he was curled up asleep by the door.
When I dropped him at nursery, Sonny was like a zombie, and when I collected him that evening, a concerned carer took me to one side and asked if everything was ok at home. Apparently Sonny had fallen asleep face-first in his lunch. His voice was hoarse.
‘Oh, he just had a bad night,’ I stammered, but was filled was a terrible sense of shame. I felt cruel and heartless — but I also felt that we had to hold our nerve. After all, this was our last hope.
Things improved slightly on the second night. Sonny cried for an hour, but didn’t batter at the door, nor did he wake in the night. And, on the third night, he finally stayed in bed and slept through. The message had got through: there was no point trying to escape.
Miraculously, it had worked. Six months of misery had ended in three nights.
We had our first full night’s sleep in half a year, and immediately felt energised and happier. Sonny was brighter and more alert.
The bolt stayed on. Five months later and Sonny is now three-and-a-half. He still occasionally wakes at 5am, but has everything he wants in his room to entertain him, plus a potty, so he merrily plays away until we go in at 7am.
The whole painful process has transformed our lives. All three of us are well rested, and we all get on better.
Then, a few weeks ago, Diana told me: ‘I want to get rid of that bolt, now. We all need to move on.’ And she was right.
We replaced Sonny’s door handle and ceremoniously unscrewed the bolt and tossed it in the bin. It was a landmark moment.
I still feel uncomfortable about what I did, but really my only regret is that we didn’t do it six months earlier. It could have saved so much heartache.
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So *bleeping* disgusting