It seems just yesterday that your baby finally learned to sleep through the night, and you were off-the-hook for night-wakings every two hours. Once your baby was sleeping 10-12 hours each night, you started to relax a little more in the evenings, relishing the alone time with your partner, or just taking in the extra hours of calm you now had. And then, just as you’re settling in to watch the latest episode of This Is Us, your toddler materializes at the side of the couch. What are they doing up? Ugh.
Independence = testing boundaries
While it’s fascinating to watch our babies grow and learn, developmental milestones can introduce frustrating routines and bad habits. After crawling comes walking, and one of the first words your baby likely learns is “no.” It’s all about autonomy and independence once your baby becomes a toddler, and they realize that they are their own person, and they have choices…and they exercise them with frequency.
Maybe it begins with refusing certain foods, or maybe your little one resists being buckled into their car seat. Whatever form it takes, your little one is learning about the world around them by testing limits with their behavior. And one of the ways toddlers like to manifest their independence is with sleep and their bedroom boundaries.
Leaving the crib or bedroom
Perhaps your toddler is still in a crib, or maybe they’ve transitioned to a toddler bed–either way, they’ve figured out that things happen after they go to sleep and they want to discover exactly what goes on after hours. A one-off wake-up and bedroom escape is not a big deal, and you can easily escort your little one back to their room and get them down to sleep. However, once your little one learns to leave their room, it may be the beginning of an escape artist stage that can wreak havoc on both parent and child, especially when break-outs occur at all hours of the night.
Things get even trickier a.) if your toddler is talking, and b.) is super cute (aren’t they all?). Navigating your little one back to the bedroom is more difficult when they’re telling us that they feel sick, thirsty, scared, lonely, etc. This is where you need to find your resolve, parents.
Providing that you’ve ascertained that there’s no illness going on, but rather a clever bit of negotiation, you need to come up with a plan of action, and fast. The longer these nighttime escapes go on, the harder it is to break your toddler from the habit.
Keeping your toddler in bed
The best way to break the habit is to introduce consequences if your toddler continues to leave their bedroom.
“If you get out of bed again, we’ll ________.” Fill in that blank with whatever consequence works for your family. For some, it’s taking away a fun activity, or maybe it’s removing their lovey or favorite blanket from their crib or bed for increments of time until they learn to stay in bed.
Whatever the consequence, make sure it’s not one that will traumatize your little one. Don’t take away a night light or something that makes them feel safe and secure while they’re alone in their room (for some toddlers this may be their lovey, so don’t take that away if it will create even more problems).
The simplest consequence is also the most effective, in my experience: close the bedroom door. Many parents leave their toddler’s bedroom door cracked open at night so that they can hear nighttime cries (should they occur). Letting their little one know that they will close the door if they get out of bed again is often the most effective consequence to serve jailbreaking tots.
Stay the course
Whatever consequence you choose, the key is remaining consistent. If your toddler continues getting out of bed, you remain firm with the consequence. There may be tears and pleading, but giving in will not keep your tot in their bedroom all night. And if they continue to attempt to open the door, you may need to hold the handle on the other side. Once your toddler realizes that you won’t play their game, they’ll realize that they need to stay in bed.
But what about early morning wakings?
Some of you may have arrived at this blog, not because your toddler is waking and leaving their bedroom throughout the night, but because they’re waking up at the crack of dawn and leaving their bedroom.
Depending on your little one’s age — and number knowledge — early morning wakings can be remedied by introducing a clock. For younger toddlers, I recommend the Ok to Wake! Alarm Clock & Night Light. The concept is simple and perfect for youngsters — set the clock to the time you want your kiddo to stay in bed until, and once it’s that time, the clock glows green, letting them know that it’s okay to wake up.
If your toddler knows their numbers, you can introduce a digital clock and let them know what number signals the time for them to wake up. For example, I have a client whose son knows that when the clock shows “in the sixes,” he’s allowed to get out of bed and go downstairs.
Whatever you decide, make a pact with yourself to remain firm and to enforce consequences with consistency. It may take a few days — or even a week — but your toddler will be back to staying put and getting a good night’s sleep in no time.
If you need help with your little one’s sleep routine, sign up for a complimentary 15-minute sleep consultation.