He won’t stay in his own bed

Does your toddler play musical beds? Here's how to get him to stay put at night time.

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Zoe Cleasby, 32, a marketing manager, lives in Orpington, Kent, with her husband Aidan and their son, Elliott, 2. Zoe is struggling to get Elliott into a bedtime routine.

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Elliott’s never slept well, but five months ago he started refusing to go in his cot. We tried leaving him to cry, but he’d sob until he was in a terrible state, so we let him sleep in our bed. Big mistake as we can’t get him out now!

We bought him a little bed with side guards and usually settle him to sleep in our bed then carry him through to his room. Then he wakes crying any time between 11pm and 1am and comes into our room. He’ll only settle cuddled up in bed with us – and always prefers Aidan. All good intentions go, as we’re so tired we let him stay there – often in his favourite position of lying across our heads!

I’ve tried changing his bedroom furniture around and putting more toys in his room. We have managed to get him to sleep there a few times, but he still wakes and either comes to us or goes to the double bed in the spare room.

He wakes around 5am and is hysterical for about 10 to 15 minutes before we can get him to sleep again – in our bed. Sometimes he goes into hysterics at night and nothing will comfort him. We have wondered whether it could be bad dreams?

His ‘normal’ routine is brush teeth, milk and a story in bed any time between 7 and 8.30pm. Some nights he refuses point-blank to sleep and will sit at the top of the stairs, throwing things down to get our attention.

We both work full time and get home about 6.15pm, we don’t eat until 8pm and then we’re so tired we’re in bed by 9.30pm to get a few hours’ sleep before Elliott’s antics start. We’re exhausted.

Our expert says…

Rebecca Huntley is author of a book specialising in sleep solutions for children with tired parents. She’s a mum of three and a family therapist.

‘Speaking to Zoe, I really felt her exhaustion! She’s tried lots of things and made progress, but Elliott’s sleep pattern still isn’t ideal.

‘At 2, Elliott is the prime age for attachment issues, such as being clingy, and these can interfere with sleep. Both Zoe’s and Elliott’s needs have to be taken into account while keeping Zoe’s goal in sight. But she should congratulate herself for what she’s done so far. It may not feel like it now, but things will get better.’

1 Get a clear picture

Assess what’s going on. Will Elliott go to sleep if someone stays in his room with him? Thinking the problem through clearly will help you tackle it.

2 Routine is important

A bedtime routine signals it’s ‘time to sleep’ so your toddler needs time to wind down and get his head around it. A routine takes about 30 minutes. Don’t rush it.

3 Stick to the routine

Give Elliott notice that it’s time to sleep, allowing a wind-down. Avoid any exercise, television or active play in the hour before bedtime. Give Elliott ‘child-sized’ choices – does he want to use the red or blue toothbrush? Which story? Try to do things in the same order, at the same time, in the same place.

4 Make sure he’s not feeling too tired

If he’s overtired at bedtime, he might get a second wind and be unable to settle down. Most toddlers, if they stay horizontal long enough, will fall asleep so finish the routine in his bed with a bedtime story, singing songs or stroking his head.

5 Help him ‘unlearn’ bad habits

Elliott needs to unlearn the habit of sleeping with Mum and Dad. It’s taken two years to get here, so Zoe will need to take it slowly. Remember, Elliott will also be experiencing separation anxiety. The first step is to get him to sleep in his own bed with you nearby. Sit on a chair next to the bed making sure you’re close enough to read but not close enough to snuggle.

6 Be patient

Persevere, as the new routine may take a while to work. This is easier said than done when you’re sitting there fuming, wishing you were enjoying dinner with your partner! Bring a magazine with you to read so you’re not resentful. Make it clear to Elliott that you’re there but he’s got to stay in bed and you’re not there to play. Make it boring for him.

7 Don’t rush in at every murmur

Once he can get himself to sleep without you at bedtime, he can do it during the night, too. Don’t expect him to sleep through the night – we all stir many times. But what he’ll be able to do is stir a little then get back to sleep without waking fully and calling out for you.

8 Be realistic

Even a toddler who can get himself back to sleep at night without fuss may sometimes wake up frightened and need reassurance from you. Nightmares and separation anxiety are very common at this age. But keep comfort brief and allow him to get himself back to sleep. Do not play with him or offer food (although a glass of water is okay), and don’t let him come into bed with you.

9 Teach him to go it alone

Gradually move yourself out of Elliott’s room, cutting down on any physical contact, like holding his hand. As you sense he’s feeling more comfortable about the situation, go out for a few moments, saying you’ve got to pop to the loo. Return quickly the first few times he stays calm and in bed. Build up how long you stay out until telling him that you, too, must get ready for bed. Sound confident or he’ll pick up on your doubt.

10 Watch out for relapses

It’s only natural that Elliott may slip backwards after a big change such as a new baby or different childcare arrangements. The trick is to catch it before it becomes a habit again. Once you’ve established good sleep habits (and you will!), you’ll have more confidence in his ability to settle and your ability to set boundaries.

The result: Zoe’s got her evenings back at last!

‘In the past few weeks I’ve seen a big improvement in Elliott’s sleeping habits. He’s settling better and I think it’s because he’s got a proper routine now.

‘Rebecca made us realise that Elliott needs a very set structure for bedtime. Now every night it’s bath, milk, story in bed and lights out at 7.15pm. It’s amazing the difference it’s made. I still sit with him before he falls asleep, but now it’s down to 15 minutes instead of an hour and a half. We’ve finally got our evenings back!

‘It’s really helped that Rebecca never promised a miracle cure. Instead she said sorting Elliott’s sleep problems is a work in progress to be tackled one step at a time. It means that I’m not feeling so stressed.

‘Now Elliott is finally going to sleep at a decent hour, we’re concentrating on getting him to sleep through. For the past week, he’s only been waking up once a night between 2am-3am.

‘He still comes into our room, but Aidan scoops him up and pops him back into his own bed. Sometimes he’ll need his head stroked for five minutes, but he’ll then go back to sleep. Finally there’s light at the end of a very long tunnel.

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‘The other day, I was on my way to work and I suddenly realised I had a spring in my step. I’d actually had a decent night’s sleep and felt human again.’

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