In the order of operations for helping a toddler stay in bed all night, getting them to a place where they fall asleep independently is at the top of the list. When you are able to leave their room while they are still awake, you know they have developed the skills to self-soothe and fall asleep independently in the first place.
"If your child needs you nearby in order to fall asleep and you leave (either because you have to go attend to something or because you think he or she is asleep), your toddler will absolutely leave the bed to come to find you," says Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, director of the behavioral sleep program at Connecticut Children's Medical Center.
She explains that most kids wake up 2-6 times each night. So view bedtime as a learning opportunity for your toddler, where they develop the skills necessary to meet some of their own needs throughout the night. "If your toddler needs your help to fall asleep at bedtime and you leave only once he or she is deeply asleep," explains Dr. Schneeberg, "your toddler will leave their bed to come and find you at night after he or she wakes as all kids do."
Sleep-Training Your Toddler
Sleep training a toddler goes by many names, most of which include the word "walk" in them. That's because you'll be walking back and forth between your bed and theirs. Maybe all night. The simple steps are:
- Complete the bedtime routine as normal, including hugs, kisses, and encouragement.
- Leave quickly without fanfare and no answering last-minute pleas or requests.
- If your kid gets up, walk them back to bed calmly, tuck them in again and remind them they need to stay in bed. Leave the room.
- If your kids get up again, walk them back to bed calmly and now silently. Tuck them into bed. Leave the room.
Getting your kid to stay in bed overnight is not an easy or quick thing to do. It may take a night before it works. It might take five. But it will eventually work. The key is to remain completely calm and quiet in the face of whatever your toddler throws at you. Even if they are literally throwing things at your face.
Make Clear Expectations About Staying in Bed
Make sure your toddler knows what you expect from them. Dr. Schneeberg suggests using a bedtime chart if your toddler uses extra steps or requests as "If you have a chart you can say, ‘the chart says it's time to brush teeth now’ or ‘hugging the dog again is not on the chart,’" she says.
Charts can be as much for the parent's benefit as they are for the toddler's. By bedtime, you're tired as well and may find it a challenge to keep firm limits. "Parents sometimes think that if they grant all of the requests a child makes when they out of the room then their child will finally fall asleep," says Dr. Schneeberg. "In actuality, granting all of these requests actually rewards the child for staying awake."
If the rigidity of a chart isn't the best fit for you or your toddler, Dr. Schneeberg notes that a ticket or token system might work better. Each night, your child gets two tickets that they can "spend" on a deviation from the bedtime routine. They can use a ticket on an extra book, a quick drink, or anything else within reason. "Once the two tickets are gone, parents can remind their children to return to bed to play quietly in bed with their comfort objects until they are drowsy enough to fall asleep,' says Dr. Schneeberg.
Getting Your Toddler Back to Bed
Kids actually have rational reasons for not wanting to go to bed. Staying up is more fun than laying still, and they have a fear of missing out on the entertaining things parents or siblings do at night. Unfortunately, they also drastically miscalculate their ability to be healthy and pleasant without adequate sleep, so it really is imperative that they get back to bed.
Dr. Schneeberg notes that you'll want to be as brief and boring as possible when returning your child to bed. "Remind your child to play with their small, safe toy or stuffed animal until he or she is sleepy," she says. "If your child comes to your room at night, you can either let them sleep in a spare bed in your room, you can sleep in a spare bed in their room, or you can walk them back to their room and stay nearby until they are asleep again."
The good news is that what might feel like an insurmountable challenge at the moment is, in reality, an opportunity to gently reinforce that your child has the tools to stay in bed and that it's a safe place for them. At some point soon they will sleep through the night. And before you know it, your kid will reach the teenage years, so you'll be looking for strategies on how to get them out of bed.
Patrick A. Coleman. “Falling Asleep Independently Will Help Keep Your Toddler in Bed All Night”.