For many parents, getting their baby to sleep through the night is a life-changing event. I know it certainly was for me.
Waking up every hour or two to the sounds of a crying baby wasn’t just an inconvenience. It was absolutely exhausting. I was constantly irritable, completely unfocused, unable to keep track of anything, and, quite honestly, felt like I might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
So needless to say, when I finally started sleep training my baby, she learned to sleep 12 hours a night without any help from me, and got into a predictable rhythm with naps, it felt like nothing short of a miracle.
Conversely, when my baby entered toddlerhood testing boundaries around sleep was par for the course. A toddler leaving their bedroom at bedtime, in the night, or during nap time may sound harmless, but if it happens often enough, it can be every bit as hard on parents and children as constant night waking. And toddlers can be incredibly persistent and intense when they’re trying to get their way.
The thing that makes this scenario trickier than sleep training a baby is that your little one, by this age, has probably learned a few negotiating tactics. I’m not saying this in a negative way, but toddlers quickly learn how to manipulate people. It’s not that they’re malicious or conniving, it’s just human nature. We test behaviors and actions to see if they get us what we’re after, and when we find something that works, we tend to use it repeatedly.
So if asking for a glass of water gets mom back into the room, or asking to use the bathroom helps to satisfy your curiosity about what’s going on outside of your room after hours, you’re likely to use the same approach every time. That can be a soothing fact to keep in your mind when 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.
Now, bearing in mind that yelling is just going to upset everyone, and that giving in will just encourage more of the same behavior, how do we get a toddler to stay in their room without letting the situation escalate?
Consequences, mama. Consequences are the key.
I should start off here by saying that I think it’s only fair to always give one warning before implementing a consequence for unwanted behavior. If 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, give them a quick smooch, and let them know that there will be a consequence if they leave their room again.
Hopefully, that does the trick. More than likely, especially if this is a behavior that’s been going on for a while already, it won’t do the trick.
When they show up in the living room again, saying that they forgot to tell you something, or that their water is too warm, or that they can’t find their lovie (which is, of course, in their hand when they say this) it’s time to implement that consequence.
Now we get to the big question, right? What’s the consequence? I’ve had a lot of parents tell me, “I know I need to discipline him somehow, but I don’t want it to be anything that will upset him.”
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 discourage unwanted behavior if it isn’t undesireable? The simple answer is, it won’t.
The trick here is to find a balance between something that your child doesn’t mind and something that really throws them into a tailspin, because we don’t want to traumatize anyone here. We’re just looking for something unpleasant enough to discourage the behavior.
Understanding that every child is different and that nothing works for everyone, I do have a simple trick that I’ve found to be incredibly effective in this situation, and it’s as simple as closing a door.
In fact, that’s the trick. Yep, that’s it right there. Close the bedroom door.
There’s something about having the bedroom door closed all the way until it latches that toddlers really seem to dislike. You don’t have to do it for long. Just a minute for the first offence, then bump it up by another minute or so every time your toddler leaves their room that night.
Like I said, this is a form of consequence and if your child doesn’t like it, well, that’s kind of the point, right? So if they cry a little, you’ll have to ride it out. If they try to open the door, you’re going to have to hold it closed. If they pitch a fit, let them, but don’t give in. If you do, all you’re teaching them is that they just need to do x,y, or z in order to get their way, and that’s going to make things significantly worse.
If your toddler already sleeps with the door closed, you can try taking away their lovey/stuffed animal/blanket on the same time pattern as you would with the door-closing technique. A minute on the first go-round, a minute more if it happens again, and so on. Before too long, they should start to recognize the negative consequences of leaving their room, and they’ll stay in bed unless they have an actual issue.
That covers the night, but what about the morning? We’ve all gotten that surprise visit from our little ones at 5:15 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.
I recommend an OK-To-Wake clock, or a similar one from Amazon. There were a couple of dozen on there the last time I checked and they range from about $25 to $50. The clock lights up when it’s ok to get out of bed in the morning. Remember to avoid any blue light, as it blocks the release of melatonin (sleep hormone) minicing sunlight in the brain, which can stimulate cortisol production (the hormone that wakes us up) and make it tougher to get back to sleep.
Another option if your toddler knows their numbers, you can use a digital clock. Put some tape over the minutes, leaving just the hour showing, and tell them it’s not time to get up until they see the “magic seven” on the clock. Don’t set the alarm though. If they’re able to sleep past seven o’clock, you don’t want them waking up with a jolt when the alarm suddenly goes off.
These are just a couple of options and they may not work with every toddler. You may have to try out a few different approaches before you find something that sticks, but what is critical in achieveing success is consistency. You absolutely have to stick to what you say once you’ve given the warning. Your toddler may not know how to tie their shoes yet, but they can spot an empty threat a mile away. They’re gifted like that, and they don’t mind systematically testing the boundaries to see if the rules are still in place night after night.
Be patient, be calm, and at the same time be firm and predictable. Once they realize that you’re not giving in, and they can predict your next move on how you will handle the situation, you’ll be free to break out the good snacks and turn on your favorite show without your toddler coming out of their bedroom for a surprise visit.