I have a confession to make… I transitioned my first born way too early to a toddler bed because I didn’t know any better. I was pregnant with my second sweet dude who was coming soon, and my original plan was to buy another crib. My oldest was about 22 months old, he enjoyed sleeping in his crib and slept beautifully in it, so I didn’t want to mess with sleep. The morning we were going to buy a new crib, I was woken up by my curly haired dude at the side of my bed. In my delirious state, I thought how did he manage to climb out? I asked him, and he showed me. That’s when I decided to buy him a toddler bed instead of a new crib for his brother.
Now as a certified sleep consultant, I know better and I recommend keeping your toddler in their crib as close to age 3 as possible. When you are ready to make the change, I also encourage transitioning your toddlers crib by converting it to the toddler bed setting. This helps your toddler feel more comfortable in their sleep space as it is not such a huge change. Studies have shown that children who slept in cribs not only slept longer, but they went to bed earlier, fell asleep sooner, had less night wakings and resisted less at bedtime. A 3 year old is more developmentally ready to understand the rules and expectations of staying in bed all night, then a 18 month old for instance.
However, if you are reading this blog it’s probably because you have already transitioned your child and you now need to know what you can do to encourage your toddler to stay in their bed. And I am here to help you with that!
First things first… Ask yourself why is your child getting out of bed?
If they are able to communicate, you can simply just ask them and maybe it is something you can address quite easily, such as they don’t want to sleep with their door closed, they are afraid of the dark etc. Sometimes the reasons may be obvious; they need to use the washroom, they need their 100th glass of water because they are just so thirsty, or you didn’t kiss their teddy bear good night, but sometimes it’s something bigger like separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety peaks around the 8-10 month sleep regression, but it is something that can also affect our toddlers and young children. They can’t yet tell time, so they simply do not know when you will be coming back or where you went, and they may just have a fear that they are missing out on something fun outside their bedroom walls. This is when you will find your child leave their room to look for you and want to be near you. This happens right after you put them to sleep and tuck them in for the night and/or when they wake up in the middle of the night and realize you aren’t around.
To tackle this somewhat frustrating game of getting out of bed when it’s time to sleep, it’s important to have a clear bedtime routine, and also clear night time expectations.
Clear Bedtime Routine
A clear bedtime routine makes the night predictable for your child. They will anticipate that after their routine they are expected to go to sleep, stay in their bed, and you will see them in the morning. You can even use a tool such as a Bedtime Routine Chart to help avoid bedtime battles and give your child some control during bedtime. You can find one here, that I used with my kiddos. Sometimes toddler bedtime routines start to stray from the newborn routine that was implemented from day 1. It’s important to go back to basics and use these guidelines to create a predictable bedtime routine:
Incorporate 60 minutes of quiet time before your bedtime routine: This is a good time to take a warm bath, read some books, have a snack, or play quietly with legos. For my kids I set a timer. It's a visual cue for them that helps them anticipate sleep is coming. Sometimes having sleep sprung on them doesn’t allow them to transition from playtime to sleepy time, and produces bedtime battles, which then leads to going to bed late, poor quality sleep, frequent night wakings, which then finally leads to them getting out of their bed during the night and going to look for you. Catch my drift?
Be Consistent: Stick to an appropriate bedtime hour. It’s confusing for your child to go to bed one night at 8PM, and then the next night moving back to their normal bed time of 7PM, and flip flopping to different times. Now I am not saying you can’t have a later bed time once in awhile if you are out and not home for their bed time. But you definitely want your child to go to bed at the same hour as much as possible. Having a consistent morning wake up time and bed time will help reset your child's internal 24 clock. This will help your child unwind for the night quicker and drift off to sleep with ease. This will avoid the stalling games most children start to play when they don’t want to go to sleep or stay in their bed. Children thrive on consistency and routine!
Avoid Stimulating Noise, Light and Activities: Shut off electronics at least an hour before bed. Having a soft lullaby going while you are implementing your bedtime routine will help your child unwind, and then following your stories or routine you can switch it to a white noise for sleep. You can continue books and a cuddle in their bed. They are unlikely to get out of their bed once you tuck them in since they received some 1:1 time with you. Our family will read books in our toddlers bed, and when we get to the last book it is made clear that the light will be turned off following the book and then it is sleepy time. No surprises. It’s important to not have a bright light on while reading books either, as the bright light suppresses melatonin, which is the sleepy hormone you need to have a good nights sleep.
Important - You want to finish your routine by telling your child that you will see them in the morning, kiss them good night and then leave their room. This leads to my next point of making your night time expectations clear.
Clear Night Time Expectations
As a parent you want to make your night time expectations clear. Be clear that they are expected to stay in their bed, and that you will see them in the morning. Make it known that if they need you then to call out, and you will come see them but they need to wait in their bed. If you still have a monitor in their room, point to it and tell them that you can hear and see them in the monitor so they are not alone. This brings comfort and reassurance for some kids.
If your child is old enough, have a family meeting where you can create some sleep rules, and explain your toddler clock (if you have one, and if you don't I would encourage you to get one) so it's clear what is expected of them. Get creative, write out the sleep rules on a piece of paper and have your children decorate it. Even though they cannot read, it’s a great visual for your child. Some sleep rules can be, stay in your bed, be quiet, close your eyes, go to sleep. Super simple, and a great reminder!
Don’t be afraid of using incentives for your child to stay in bed. A reward sticker chart goes a long way, and kids love seeing their progress. You can even have a small reward for every day for a week and once they receive 7 consecutive stickers they may get something such as a small toy. Eventually they won’t need this sticker chart, as staying in their bed will just become part of their normal night.
It’s important to note that when your child stays in their bed all night, make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed. Give all the morning high fives, praise and hugs. Get them to notice how great they feel with their great night of sleep. If you choose to use incentives, reward them as soon as they wake up. If they didn’t stay in bed all night, just remind them why they aren’t receiving their reward (didn’t follow the sleep rules) and then drop it. There’s no need to talk about it throughout the day, as sometimes this can cause a lot of stress leading up to bedtime for your child. So you would just continue on with your day as normal, and then implement your bedtime routine and remind your child of their night time expectations and sleep rules.
An example below is the sleep rules poster our family created when my sons were 2 and 4, which we hung in their room. I recommend adding "#4 close your eyes", but my oldest claims he sleeps with his eyes open, and we wanted to avoid that bedtime battle.
More on the Toddler Clock... Using a toddler sleep clock is a great “tool” to help solidify sleep rules with your child. It makes your nighttime and morning okay to wake time expectations clear. This helps decrease those bedtime battles and negotiating with a toddler early in the morning when they are adamant at starting their day at 5AM.
Tips to help you make this clock a beneficial sleep tool:
Introduce the clock to your toddler, and explain what it does.
For fun, practice what each color means with your child - Example: when the light is blue we go to sleep, *pretend to sleep*, then set your okay to wake time for 1 minute after, and when the light turns yellow we wake up and start our day *pretend to wake up*
Don’t expect your child to take to it right away, it may take some time - but don’t give up.
Stay committed to your “okay to wake time”, if your child tests it and gets out of bed before it’s time to wake (because they will). By allowing your child to wake up/get out of their room before their okay to wake time will encourage those early morning wakings.
Be consistent!! Your child is going to push boundaries and test the sleep rules and expectations. Stick with it, the clock will soon become a great part of your bedtime routine and help you get some more zzz’s in the morning! There are so many different toddler clocks out there, with so many different price tags. Research them and see what one would benefit your family. My all-time favourite is the Hatch as it has so many wonderful features. It’s a great investment because it is a toddler clock, nightlight and a white noise machine all in one. So you can use it when your baby is first born, and it grows with your child. Best bang for your buck!
Okay, I have implemented a clear bedtime routine, and expectations but my child is still waking up during the night - now what?
How to Handle Night Time Visits
Even though we may have our family meeting, set the sleep rules and implement a great bed time routine, your child still has their own personality and a way of doing things. So it’s important to know what you are going to do when they wake up in the middle of the night and walk to your room, because trust me in the beginning they definitely will!
When your child gets out of bed and comes looking for you, they are wanting to see and be near you because you are their safe zone. Acknowledge that, but don’t reinforce the behaviour with any stimulating activity or noise. Your goal after all is that you want them to go to sleep in their bed, and stay asleep.
When they wake up in the middle of the night, avoid singing to them, reading them a middle of the night story, rocking them to sleep, or my favourite one - do not let them brush their teeth at 1AM, like my son tried to convince my husband he needed. You want to be super, super, super, boring. This way they will think nothing is fun about middle of the night mama or papa, which will be less of an incentive for them to wake in the middle of the night.
While you are walking them back to their bed to tuck them in, in a monotone voice you want to remind them about the sleep rules, the toddler clock still states its night time (if you use one), and most importantly that they are safe and loved. Try not to get upset or frustrated, because negative attention is still attention.
The steps to help getting your child to stay in their bed is simple, but in no way is it easy or a quick fix. It takes time, consistency and so much strength because we all know it is way easier to just let them snuggle in your bed. And if this is what you want and are okay with, then go for it and forget everything mentioned in this blog! I am a firm believer in continue to do whatever is working for your family, but it would be unfair to leave out that some easy habits aren't healthy. Down the line, it’s harder to break unhealthy sleep habits than it is to nurture healthy ones.
You’ve got this! Sleep is coming!
If you would like me to help you navigate this frustrating time, book a phone consultation so we can create a plan of action for your family. If you would like to find out more about how I can help your family nurture healthy sleep don’t hesitate to reach out: andrea@sleepingbeau
P.S: Don't forget to snag my free Bedtime Routine Chart. A free printable bedtime routine chart with matching visual cards to help your evenings become more enjoyable and less stressful for the whole family!