You’ve put your toddler in bed and kissed her goodnight. All seems quiet… but before long, you hear a patter of little footsteps. She’s out of bed, and she doesn’t to return. So begins the nightly boomerang game of in, out, in, out… (yawn), in, out…
When can this sleep problem begin?
For most of us, the crunch moment usually comes when we move a toddler out of her cot into a bed – around the age of 2-3, says baby sleep expert Rachel Waddilove.
It’s no surprise that any mums feel worried about moving their toddler from a cot to a bed. Will she start climbing out of bed, disrupting your evenings and nights? One MFMer says of planning to move her toddler from a cot to a bed: “I am quite nervous about it because I have heard some real horror stories about toddlers getting out of bed at all hours.” SusanMac
It’s only natural for a toddler who has just got her own bed to want to experiment with getting out – now that she can, explains Rachel, who wrote the calming sounding Sleep Solutions – Quiet nights for you and your child from birth to five years,
Another MFMer reveals: “I put my 2 year old into a bed a few months ago and didn’t give him the option of a cot as thought it might confuse him. We got him a Bob the Builder duvet cover and showed him us putting the bed up so he could get used to it.” Lucy
The good news is that this is just a phase and it shouldn’t last long. The harder bit is that you’ll need to be firm.
If you give in to a toddler who constantly gets out of bed by letting her stay in the living room or your bedroom (because, let’s face it, it’s easier), it’s going to be payback time the next night, and the one after that.
So what do you need to do?
7 sleep-training ways to solve your toddler getting out of bed
1. Be consistent
“The key to solving this sleep problem is consistency. Every time she gets up, take her back to her own bed with as little interaction as possible,” recommends sleep therapist Juliet Newson from Millpond children’s sleep clinic.
Initially, this may mean camping outside her door, and being prepared to take her straight back to bed when she comes out. A good book or browsing on your phone may help during your stakeout.
According to our mums, it really can work. Charmaine advises: “Stick to your guns, stick to your routine. You need to just remain calm and keep returning your little one to bed as many times as it takes. Eventually he will get fed up and realise that he is not going to win this one. If you give in sometimes, then it will make his determination much stronger. It can wear you down, make you tired and frustrate you, but stick to it and I am sure things will pick up.”
2. Avoid making it feel like a fun new game (for your toddler, not you, obv)
Your toddler might find a very emotional response from mum or dad interesting – and worth a repeat performance for. Be firm and calm – and show your child that you mean business. One MFMer wisely advises: “Try not to get cross as being tense then rubs off onto toddlers. I notice that as soon as I raise my voice (not shouting) he starts playing up a bit.” Myflowersx
3. Explain what you are doing
It is possible to reason (to some extent) with a 3 year old, unlike with a younger child. Rachel encourages parents to talk to their child about why it’s important and actually lovely to go to sleep. You should then explain what will happen if she refuses to stay in bed. “Have a two-way conversation with your child about it. Lovingly express that there can be rewards (these don’t have to be sugary ones – just feeling happier for example) if she makes good choices at bedtime,” she says.
Oh yes, but here’s the thing. Avoid getting drawn into a lengthy discussion at bedtime about why your child needs to go to sleep, as your toddler might see this as a brilliant opportunity for just a bit more procrastination. Phew, they’re clever.
4. Try doing a ‘talk-through’
So, why not talk to your child about her bedtime routine at another time of day. Pick a moment when she is calm and not distracted. With an older toddler, you can try the ‘talk-through’ technique as detailed by Noël Janis-Norton in her book Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting. This involves preparing for bedtime success by asking your toddler to tell you, in as much detail as she can, what good behaviour at bedtime looks like. As she tells you about it, she will run through her bedtime routine in her mind, creating a little mental picture which she can follow when it is actually time for bed. You may even want to encourage her to draw the routine and put it by her bed. She could win a reward sticker every time she follows her picture.
5. Create ‘sleep rules’
Taking this a little further, paediatrician Dr Marc Weissbluth suggests in his book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child that you make a poster of simple ‘sleep rules’ with your toddler. This can help your child feel she has her own rules, but they’re also part of the family rules. Again, you can use sticker rewards to congratulate her each time she does well.
6. Use a treat rewards system
Both sleep experts, Rachel and Juliet, agree that with an older toddler, a rewards system for going to sleep without getting out of bed can work wonders. Juliet suggests the Millpond ‘sleep fairy’ concept. “This is where parents tell their children that the sleep fairy visits in the night to see if they’re staying in bed. If they are, a treat is added to their treat jar. It’s a great motivator,” she says.
Remember treat jars don’t mean sweet jars. A treat can be an extra 10 mins in the bath, an extra 20 pushes on the swings or a made-up story.
Try this: Use a sticker chart system to help your toddler visually track her progress. For example, if she can get 5 stickers on her chart, she will win a reward. “The important thing is for the reward at the end to be something that she really wants – you don’t have to spend lots of money,” Rachel says. Remember, you can download reward charts from the internet.
7. The denial technique
This is the technique you may find you turn to when nothing else seems to be working. It is more negative but it can work, as long as you do it firmly and fairly. Sleep expert Rachel suggests taking away a favourite toy for a day (though not at bedtime, if said toy is necessary for cuddling). Less stressful (possibly) could be refusing a favourite TV programme. You’ll need to give your child clear warning and then follow through – but you can do it gently. “It’s about letting her know that there are boundaries in family life,” Rachel explains.
MFMers share their ideas for dealing with a toddler who won’t stay in bed
Here are some methods successfully tried and tested by our mums:
- Use a stairgate. “Put a safety gate on his door so that he can’t leave his room. Unless he is creating total mayhem in his room, just ignore him. If he gets no attention for getting out of bed he’ll just get back in and go to sleep. The next morning, give him loads of praise for getting back in bed and going to sleep.” sarah-mum-of-3
- Allow her to read quietly in bed. “I found that if I let my toddler read on her own for a bit, she would settle better. She has a clock on the wall and I would point to it and show her where the big hand would be in 10 minutes. I told her that when the big hand got to that position she would have to turn her light out and go to sleep. It worked for us.” Stephanie Green 2
You could also try
- Closing the bedroom door as she may not be able to open it. However your child may feel reassured, and therefore find it easier to get to sleep, if her door is left ajar.
- Hang a bell on her door. When she leaves her bedroom, you will be quickly alerted and can take her back before she’s had a chance to roam.
Keep your toddler safe if she’s getting in and out of bed
Ensure that your toddler remains safe when she climbs in and out of her bed by pushing his bed against the wall on one side, and using a bed guard on the other. A bed guard will also prevent her from falling out. Keep toys and other floor clutter to a minimum so that she doesn’t trip in the dark. If she has been in a sleeping bag or Grobag, buy her a duvet or quilt instead, as attempting to climb or walk in a sleeping bag could lead to a fall.