For many parents, getting their baby to sleep through the night is a life-changing event. I’m speaking from experience here because it certainly was for me!
Waking up multiple times overnight is exhausting for the whole family. I remember being very irritable, unfocused, unable to keep track of anything, and incapable of remembering basic things like bread and milk without writing a list!
So, I was elated when he started sleeping through the night AND napping consistently during the day. Seeing the benefits of sleep training so quickly was amazing. It’s a feeling I will never forget.
If you’re the parent of a toddler or older child, you have likely experienced the bliss of your little one finally sleeping through the night. Remember feeling on top of the world when you begin to see predictable naps and a consistent 10 – 12hour sleep overnight…perfect!
Then you move into toddlerhood. This brings some truly wonderful (and challenging) developments: walking, talking, and some serious boundary-pushing!!!
Eventually, it comes time to move your little one into a big bed. The issue with this transition is that your little one is provided ample opportunity to get out of bed.
Is it really doom and gloom?
A toddler leaving their bedroom may sound harmless. Initially, it’s a bit cute. My little guy has come out into the lounge for ‘just one last cuddle’ (is your heart melting too?). But if it happens often enough, it can be every bit as hard on parents and children as constant night wakings. And toddlers can be incredibly persistent when they’re trying to get their way.
The thing that makes keeping your toddler in bed trickier than sleep training a baby is that a toddler or young child has acquired some serious negotiation skills. I do not say this maliciously, but kids this age are fantastic at manipulation. It’s human nature to test behaviours and boundaries and these kids are right in the thick of it!
What this means is that your little one will continue to use a huge range of requests/negotiations until they find something that works – then they will use it repeatedly.
So, if asking for a glass of water gets Mum or Dad back into the room or asking to use the bathroom allows your little one a ‘free pass out’ of their room, you will see this happen again and again. I’m not sure how reassuring this information is to you as you’re walking your child back to their room for the seventeenth time since saying goodnight!
How do you stop these frequent visits?
Now, bearing in mind that yelling is just going to upset everyone, and giving in will just encourage more of the same behaviour, how do we get a toddler to stay in their room without letting the situation escalate?
Consequences, mama. Consequences are the key!
The biggest thing when using consequences is that they can’t come out of nowhere; they need to be introduced. That’s why I always encourage parents to give one warning before implementing a consequence for unwanted behaviour.
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 kiss, 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 behaviour that’s been going on for awhile already, it won’t.
When a little face pops out again to tell you that they forgot to go to the toilet, or that their nails are too long, or that they can’t find their comforter (which is likely in their hand), it’s time to implement that consequence.
Now we get to the big question…what’s the consequence?
I’ve had a lot of parents tell me, “I know I need to discipline this somehow, but I don’t want it to be anything that will upset him/her.”
I totally understand this line of thinking, but really, what is a consequence if it’s not something unpleasant? How is it ever going to dissuade unwanted behaviour if it isn’t somehow disagreeable?
The simple answer is…it won’t.
The trick here is to find the middle ground between something your child doesn’t mind and something potentially traumatising. We’re just looking for something unpleasant enough to dissuade the behaviour.
Is there a consequence that works for everyone?
We know that every child is different and that nothing works for everyone. However, I do have a simple trick that I’ve found to be incredibly effective in this situation:
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. Start with one minute, then increase by thirty seconds or so every time your toddler leaves their room that night.
As 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. The last thing we want to reinforce is that you will ‘give in’ if they cry. That is going to make things significantly worse.
My child sleeps with the door closed already…
You could try taking away their comforter/blanket. Use the same time pattern as you would with the door-closing technique. For example 1 minute on the first go, then increase by thirty second each time therafter.
Before too long, they should start to recognize the negative consequences of leaving their room. This means they’ll stay in bed unless they have an actual issue.
My child isn’t leaving their room until early morning
I’m sure you have experienced a visit or two around 5 AM from your little one wondering if it is morning yet? You can’t really blame them! Chances are that they legitimately woke up and didn’t know if it was time to get up or not.
You can try using a GroClock, or a similar version (Kmart sell something similar). These fabulous clocks shine a soft light that’s one colour through the night, and another when it’s time to get up.
If your toddler knows their numbers, you can get a simple digital clock and tape over the minute numbers. All your toddler can see then is the hour numbers. Then you tell your little one they cannot get up until ‘magic seven’ shows on the clock. Make sure you don’t set the alarm though! If they’re able to sleep past seven o’clock, you don’t want them waking up to the radio blaring!
Consistency is key!
You might have to try a few different options to help your little one to identify when they can get up and start their day.
Make sure you remain consistent! You are going to have to stick to your guns once you’ve decided on your warning and consequences. If you give your little one a warning you must follow through with the consequence if they get up again.
Your toddler may not yet be able to tie their laces or buckle themselves into their car seat, but they can spot an empty threat a mile away! They’re very gifted in this department. They certainly don’t mind systematically testing the boundaries to see if the rules will be enforced every night.
Be patient, and be calm, but be firm and very predictable. Once they realize that you’re not giving in, you’ll be free to break out the good snacks and turn on Netflix without fear of being discovered.