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. Think back to those early days of waking every 2-3 hours – brutal right? As a Colorado toddler sleep coach, I know first-hand how many parents hate getting interrupted sleep – I hate it, too.
What makes this scenario trickier than sleep training a baby is that your toddler has probably learned a few negotiating tactics along the way. Let me be clear – boundary pushing and forming autonomy are perfectly normal parts of toddlerhood and really a healthy sign that your child is developing well. Although not in a malicious or conniving way, toddlers quickly learn how to manipulate their caregivers. This is human nature and again, very normal. Children test behaviors and actions to see if they get them what they’re after, and when they find something that works, they tend to use it repeatedly.
For example, if asking for a glass of water gets mom back into the room or asking to use the bathroom helps to satisfy their curiosity about what’s going on outside of their room after bedtime, they are likely to use the same approach every time. Before you know it, you’re 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.
How do you nip your child getting out of bed?
For many parents, bedtime stalling and getting out of bed becomes a chronic problem. There’s nothing more frustrating after a long day than having to continuously repeat yourself and negotiate your child back to bed.
Likely you’ve tried everything, from yelling, which intensifies the stress, to giving in to demands, which will just encourage more of the same behavior. So how do we get a toddler to stay in their room without letting the situation escalate?
Consequences, mama. Consequences are the key to ending this behavior before it becomes chronic.
Here is my protocol for addressing your toddler leaving their bed:
- Establish your boundaries. This will be a key part of your bedroom routine from now on. “It’s time to lay down. The rules are that you do not leave your bed after mom or dad leaves your room. If you leave your room, there will be a consequence.” If your child is able, have them repeat back the expectations so you know they understand.
- Purchase an “ok to wake” clock. I highly recommend you invest in a Hatch. This will serve as your white noise and “ok to wake” clock, which visually tells your child when it’s ok to get out of bed. I suggest you program your Hatch to turn on during the bedtime routine with the color red (this is a safe color that doesn’t disturb melatonin production) and keep it on red all night. When it’s morning, program your Hatch to turn green. Green means go and your child knows it’s ok to leave their bed. This will take some training and work with your child.
- Offer ONE warning – I think it’s only fair to always give one warning before implementing a consequence for unwanted bedtime behavior. The first time 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, and let them know that there will be a consequence if they leave their room again.
- Consequence. The next time they leave their room, you will consequence the behavior. This can look like two things: 1) you return them to their room and hold the door shut for X amount of time (this can range from 30 seconds to a few minutes). This is a swift and easy consequence to carry out that doesn’t involve emotions or yelling. 2) If your child already sleeps with the door closed, you can instead take away a favorite stuffed animal or lovie for X amount of time.
- Repeat. Every time your child leaves their bed, return them with little reaction and repeat your consequence. Consistency will be key, if you waver and give in, you will likely be starting over and it will be even harder this time.
I often have parents tell me “I know I need to discipline him somehow, but I don’t want it to be anything that will upset him.”
As a fellow parent, 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 behavior if it isn’t somehow disagreeable? The simple answer is, it won’t.
Think about your life as a young adult. If you were to show up to your job late every single day, eventually your boss is going to catch on. Your consequence could range in severity from a reprimand to being fired. Children need the same boundary setting and consequences to learn what is expected of them.
We’ve all gotten that surprise visit from our little ones at 5:00 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.
This is when your “ok to wake clock” or Hatch will come to great use. When your child wakes in the morning and sees the red light, they will either lay in bed awake until it turns green or go back to sleep until morning. This will take some training but within a few days, they should have it down. Resist the urge to just get up with them or lay them in your bed. Return them to their bed, where they will stay until the green light turns on.
Just like anything else in parenting, teaching boundaries surrounding sleep takes time and consistency. It wouldn’t be kind to your child to switch up the rules every day. A child with strong boundaries thrives and adapts. It’s their natural reaction to push against parents, this is normal (frustrating but normal). If you stick with this routine and don’t give in, likely you’ll have your evenings back within a few days. As a Colorado toddler sleep coach, I see this all the time – the more consistent you are, the better your child will be at sleeping in their own bed.
As your Colorado toddler sleep coach, I’m here to help you every step of the way. Click here to learn more about my toddler sleep packages and don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or to set up your FREE initial consultation.