For many parents, getting their baby to sleep through the night is a life-changing event. I know it certainly was for me. When I finally started sleep training and my baby learned to sleep 10-12 hours a night without any help from me, and got into a predictable rhythm with naps, it felt like nothing short of a miracle.
But once those babies … toddlers… transition into that big boy or big girl bed things can change. Toddlers are naturally curious, inquisitive, and they are natural boundary pushes. Even the most regulated toddlers are these things – it is what they do and it is normal. They can walk, they can talk…and they can get out of their bed. If you are like me, that is not ok for a few different reasons, safety and sleep disruptions being the top! (Read my thoughts on when to transition to a toddler bed here)
Toddlers are naturally curious!
A toddler leaving their bedroom may sound harmless, but if it happens often enough, it can be every bit as hard on parents and children as constant night waking. And toddlers can be incredibly persistent when they’re trying to get their way.
The thing that makes this scenario trickier than sleep training a baby is that your little one, by this age, has probably learned a few negotiating tactics. It’s not that they’re malicious or conniving, it’s just human nature. We test behaviors and actions to see if they get us what we’re after, and when we find something that works, we tend to use it repeatedly. Toddlers are MASTERS on this. You give them an inch, they will take 10 miles!
It sometimes starts as a seemingly simple request for a glass of water or asking to use the bathroom. These tactics help satisfy their curiosity about what’s going on outside of their room after hours. And once they learn how to make that happen, they are likely to use the same approach every time. (Read more about Toddler Stall Tactics here). Knowing that it is natural doesn’t much help when you are walking your child back to their room for the fifteenth time since you sat down to watch your favorite show or are trying to enjoy a couple of hours alone with your partner.
I’ve been here. And it can get own right frustrating (and we haven’t even touched on what happens when toddlers get out of their bed in the middle of the night). Yelling, though, is just going to upset everyone. But also you know that giving in will just encourage more of the same behavior. SO WHAT DO YOU DO?? How do you get a toddler to stay in their room without letting the situation escalate?
Consequences are the key.
If your child leaves their room, ask them why they’re not in bed. Assuming the answer isn’t because they’re not feeling well, (which can often be a ruse, but should always be at least addressed and checked out before calling it such) then you can calmly but firmly tell them that they’re not allowed out of their room until morning. Walk them back to bed, say goodnight, give them a quick smooch, and let them know that there will be a consequence if they leave their room again.
Hopefully, that does the trick. More than likely, especially if this is a behavior that’s been going on for a while already, it won’t.
When they show up in the living room again, saying that they forgot to tell you something, or that their water is too warm, or that they can’t find their stuffie (which is, of course, in their hand when they say this) it’s time to implement that consequence.
What’s the consequence?
I’ve had a lot of parents tell me, “I know I need to discipline him somehow, but I don’t want it to be anything that will upset him.”
I totally understand this. I am a parent too and wanting to treat that line between being “mean mommy” and “mommy who lets me walk all over her” is a difficult one. I latch on to the fact that I am the parent, not their friend. I am here to give boundaries and security to my child. And sometimes that includes being firm and giving a consequence. Without that type of thinking, my kid would eat lollipops for dinner every night. But obviously that is not something most people are ok with.
Toddlers and children in general crave boundaries. They want to know what will happen if they push it. As a parent, you have to stand firm. The consequence by nature is going to ruffle your child’s feathers. They won’t like it. How is it ever going to dissuade unwanted behavior if it isn’t somehow disagreeable?
The simple answer is, it won’t.
As a teacher, I’ve had MANY conversations about discipline at home and what it looks like and the number of times I have heard parents tell me that of course they give their child consequences. But when I dig further, I learn that the consequence is a “Time-out” for five minutes. Time-out, of course, meant sitting on Mom’s lap while she rubbed his back and sang to him. Or being sent to their room where all their toys are effectively being sent to play as a consequence.
The trick here is to find a balance between something that your child doesn’t mind and something that really throws them into a tailspin, because we don’t want to traumatize anyone here. We’re just looking for something unpleasant enough to dissuade the behavior.
Every child is different and each kid has something that will impact them differently. Whatever it is, the consequence needs to be immediate, actionable, and you must follow through. Saying things like “You won’t have ___ tomorrow” does nothing because kids don’t have that kind of longitudinal thinking. They are very in the moment creatures.
Toddler Sleep Hack Tip
I do have a simple trick that I’ve found to be incredibly effective in this situation, and it’s as simple as closing the door.
In fact, that’s the trick.
Yep, that’s it right there. Close the bedroom door.
There’s something about having the bedroom door closed all the way until it latches that toddlers really seem to dislike. You don’t have to do it for long. Just a minute for the first offense, then bump it up by thirty seconds or so every time your toddler leaves their room that night.
Like I said, this is a form of consequence and if your child doesn’t like it, well, that’s kind of the point, right? So if they cry a little, you’ll have to ride it out. If they try to open the door, you’re going to have to hold it closed. If the
y pitch a fit, let them. But don’t give in. If you do, all you’re teaching them is that they just need to hit the roof faster in order to get their
way, and that’s going to make things significantly worse.
If your toddler already sleeps with the door closed, you can try taking away their lovey/stuffie/ blanket on the same time pattern as you would with the door-closing technique. A minute on the first go-round, thirty seconds more if it happens again, and so on. Before too long, they should start to recognize the negative consequences of leaving their room, and they’ll stay in bed unless they have an actual issue.
What about leaving the room in the morning?
That covers the night, but what about the morning? We’ve all gotten that surprise visit from our little ones at 5:15 AM, asking us if it’s morning yet, and you really can’t hold that against them.
Chances are that they legitimately woke up and didn’t know if it was time to get out of bed or not.
Two options that involve clocks. I love the OK-To-Wake clock (or a similar item) and you can get one on Amazon. These sweet little gizmos shine a soft light that’s one color through the night, and another when it’s time to get up. Just stay away from any that shine blue light, as it simulates sunlight, which can stimulate cortisol production and make it tougher to get back to sleep.
If your toddler knows their numbers, you can just get a digital clock and put some tape over the minutes, leaving just the hour showing, and tell them it’s not time to get up until they see the “magic seven” on the clock. Don’t set the alarm though. If they’re able to sleep past seven o’clock, you don’t want them waking up with a jolt when the radio suddenly fires off.
These are just a couple of options and they may not work with every toddler. You may have to try out a few different approaches before you find something that sticks, but what isn’t optional is consistency. You absolutely have to stick to your guns once you’ve given the warning. Your toddler may not know how to tie their shoes yet, but they can spot an empty threat a mile away. They’re gifted like that, and they don’t mind systematically testing the boundaries to see if the rules are still in place night after night.
Be patient, be calm, but be firm and predictable. Once they realize that you’re not giving in, you’ll be free to break out the good snacks and turn on HBO without fear of being discovered.
So now you have this and you are thinking, “This is great! I can do this!” And then you realize….it is a lot harder than you thought I was going to be. This is where I come in. I can work with you one on one giving you the support you need to implement this difficult work and helm make changes as things go along. I take out all the overwhelming information you will read on the internet and come up with a step by step plan for you to use with your child. It’s hard work but an easy process. If you are ready to get started, click here and we can chat more!