The Magical Power of the Sleep Pass to Keep Your Kids in Bed All Night


Maybe your kids slept well as infants or maybe they didn’t, but if you’re like every other parent I know, once your child hit the age of two or three—essentially about the time when they transition out of their crib—bedtimes become maddening. I think this is largely because the crib provides a very safe boundary for kids. They think, “I can do whatever I want in this space, but I can’t leave this space.” Once that is gone, kids have free range. “Hey, I can play in my room with all my toys. I can even LEAVE my room and go see what Mommy and Daddy are up to.” 

This becomes problematic, especially if you’re like me and you NEED your downtime after your kids go to bed. I found myself vacillating dramatically from anger and rage to sadness and guilt, all depending on my mood, how long this particular bedtime had been dragging on, and how cute my kids looked when asking me to come in for “just one more snuggle.” 

Each kid has his or her trick. For my son it was, “I’m hungry.” How do you say no to that? Well, eventually Dad and I caught on and started preemptively offering him a spoonful of peanut butter before brushing his teeth so that he could no longer bait us with an empty stomach.

My daughter, however, brings it to a whole other emotional level. She is my one true cuddlebug. She will snuggle and snuggle and rub your arm for hours if you let her, which is wonderful, most of the time. But when it’s been going on for an hour and a half, it gets tiresome. 

This all came to a head the other night when we had good friends in town, one of whom is a pediatric neurologist specializing in sleep disorders. He was observing this whole bedtime routine spectacle with a bemused look on his face. He poured me a glass of wine and asked gently, “Have you ever heard of the sleep pass?” 

I had, vaguely. I knew of a friend who’d tried it, but I was certain my son was too smart for it, and my daughter was too young to understand the concept. At that point, though, we were so desperate that we were willing to give anything a try. 

He sat us down and recommended the following: 

  • Make a piece of paper that says “Sleep Pass” on it. 
  • Every night, after you have completed the entire bedtime routine, give it to your child. 
  • Explain to them that they can use the pass as a one-time ticket to come out of their room for whatever reason, whether it be for water, an extra kiss or hug, to complain about being hungry, etc. (Bathroom trips are excluded and are allowed as needed). 
  • Once they’ve used the pass, they can no longer leave their room for the rest of the night, and parents cannot respond to their calls. 

What I love about this concept is that it introduces the idea of planning and strategy to young kids because they have to decide, “Is this reason really worth using my one trip out of my room, or should I try to wait and hold on to it for when I really need it?”

The real enticement of the pass system is if the child chooses to stay in their room all night and NOT use their pass, then they can exchange it for a prize in the morning. SO brilliant. Our prizes range from stickers to small trinkets purchased at the Target dollar section, but I’ve had other friends use screen time as a reward, too. Our kids are so ecstatic to pick out their prize each morning, so everyone is happy!

I have to say, initially I was full of doubts, including worries that my daughter wouldn’t understand, and also, what if they used their pass and kept coming out of their room anyway? How would we handle that?

Well, luckily we haven’t had to worry about that because so far it has worked beautifully! My son has a 100% record of staying in his room. (Granted, at age five, he is probably getting too old for this game, but we figured we had to include him, otherwise it wouldn’t be fair.) 

Our three year old is also quite successful and has only turned in her pass twice in three weeks. Both times, she sadly handed her pass over and in the morning said, “I don’t get a prize today because I didn’t stay in my room.” You can see that as disappointed as she feels, she is also learning that her actions and choices have consequences, and having control over what happens is actually quite empowering to her. As hard as it is not giving her a prize, it does encourage her to try harder the next night. 

So now my husband and I are in a space where the kids may not be asleep right away, but they are at least playing quietly in their rooms until they are tired, rather than coming out to bug us every 10 seconds, and as I have discussed before, putting oneself to sleep is such an important milestone to learn! 

So, if bedtimes are driving you crazy right now, and you haven’t already tried the sleep pass, I implore you to give it a shot. If your kids are anything like mine, it will change your life! 

Editor’s note: This article originally published on April 17, 2017 and was lightly edited prior to republishing.

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Meredith is a transplant to the Bay Area and has fallen in love with the weather, gorgeous scenery, and plethora of local wineries. A wife and mother of two, she works part-time as a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. She hails from Texas, where she attended the University of Texas and will always bleed orange. She then moved to Washington DC to attend Georgetown's School of Medicine, where she fell in love with her future husband, a fellow student, and has been happily married for almost a decade. She and her husband lived in Cincinnati, Ohio for several years for their medical training and found it the perfect place to start a family. She relocated to the Bay Area a few years ago and has quickly adapted to West Coast living. Meredith enjoys the balance of part-time working and full-time parenting and loves to write about this ongoing struggle. In her persistent drive to find more "me time", she actively pursues her interests in reading, running, soccer, baking, and wine tasting.


    • I’m not sure the sleep pass would work for a 2 year old; he or she might be too young to understand the concept of “saving” their pass, and since they have a shorter time reference they may not be able to hold on to the idea of a prize that’s not available until the next morning. Toddlers are still pretty driven by immediate gratification (which is normal!) so your child may not be ready. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to try! Good luck 🙂

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