The Wandering Toddler: Keeping Your Toddler in Their Bed

by | Sep 23, 2019

For many parents, finally getting their babies to sleep through the night is a life-changing event. Waking up every hour to the sounds of a crying baby isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s exhausting. It causes irritability, lack of focus, and, quite honestly, puts many parents on the verge of having a breakdown.

But then that baby starts to grow; they begin talking, walking, and exploring their independence. And once you’ve made the transition from a crib to a bed, it can be game-over for even the best little sleepers. And parents of toddlers know that these little people can be incredibly persistent when they’re trying to get their way.

What makes toddler sleep training so much trickier than baby sleep training is that toddlers are master manipulators. I’m absolutely not saying that in a bad way, but these small children have some pretty sophisticated negotiating tactics up their sleeves. And it’s not to any fault of theirs; they are leaning to test the boundaries of their caregivers and the impact of their actions to see how far they can get. And when they find something that works, they tend to use it repeatedly.

So maybe your toddler is curious about what goes on outside of the door to his room after he’s tucked comfortably into his bed. If asking for a glass of water or to use the bathroom helps to satisfy that curiosity, he’s going to continue asking for them. Keep that in mind the next time you’re walking your child back to their room for the fifteenth time since you sat down to watch this week’s episode of Real Housewives.

But bearing in mind that this is a normal phase of toddlerhood but is also not sustainable for everyone, how can you handle it? Yelling is likely just going to upset everyone and giving in is just going to encourage more of the same behavior, so how can you keep your toddler in their room at bedtime without letting the situation escalate?

Consequences, Mama. Consequences are the Key

I will begin by reminding you that I think it’s only fair to always prepare our children for when we are going to change up expectations. If you have spent months giving in to your child’s wild requests at bedtime, it’s helpful to begin to implement and discuss some age-appropriate bedtime expectations first. Make a chart of the bedtime rules (like staying in bed and laying quietly) and then give one warning before carrying out a consequence for unwanted behavior.

If your child leaves their room, begin by asking what’s going on. Assuming the answer isn’t that they’re not feeling well (which can also be a ruse but nevertheless should always be addressed first before calling their bluff) then you can calmly but firmly remind them of their “bedtime rules” and that they are not to leave their room until the sun comes up (or whatever the rule is in your family). Walk them back to their room, say goodnight, give a quick kiss, and let them know that there will be a consequence if they leave again.

Hopefully that does the trick. More than likely however – especially if this behavior has been going on for a long time – it won’t.

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 lovey which of course is in their hand) it’s time to implement a consequence.

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 to do anything that will upset him.” I totally understand this line of thinking, but really, what’s a consequence if 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. The trick is to find a balance between something that your child doesn’t care about and something that will really throw him into a tailspin because my goal is not to traumatize anyone here. We’re looking for something just unpleasant enough to discourage unwanted behavior.

Understanding that every child is different and that not every tactic will work in every situation, I have found one trick that is incredibly effective in this situation, and it’s as simple as closing the door.

There’s something about having the bedroom door closed all the way until it latches that toddlers really seem to dislike (even if they sleep with the door closed anyway!) You don’t have to do it for long; just a minute for the first offense and then you can bump it up by 30 seconds each time your toddler leaves their room that night.

Since consequences aren’t supposed to be enjoyable, your toddler may cry a little bit. They may yell. They may scream. And you’re just going to have to ride it out. If they try to open the door, you’re going to have to hold it closed. Whatever you do, don’t give in. If you do, all you’re teaching them is that they just need to hit the roof in order to get their way. And I don’t need to tell you that that’s going to make things significantly worse.

As I mentioned, this tactic even works with toddlers who already sleep with their door closed. For some reason, knowing that it’s closed because they are in trouble is a different sort of closed than having it closed normally. However, you can also try taking away their lovey/stuffed animal/blanket in the same fashion in which you would be closing the door (for a minute to begin with and then increasing in 30 second intervals until your toddler realizes you mean business). 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.

But What Aboout 4:30 a.m. Visits?

We’ve all gotten that surprise visit from our little ones in the wee hours asking whether it’s morning yet. Oftentimes, we can’t really hold this against them because they likely woke up and were really not sure if it was time to get up.

For situations like this, I recommend investing in some type of toddler clock. These handy little devices either light up at a pre-determined time letting your toddler know that it is morning, or shine a soft light that is one color through the night and another when it’s time to wake up.

These are just a couple options and they may not work for every toddler, especially right off the bat. You may have to try out a few different approaches and strategies before you find something that sticks. But what isn’t optional is consistency. You absolutely have to stick to your guns and follow through with what you said would happen once you’ve given them that warning. Your toddler may not be able to tie their shoes yet, but they can spot an empty threat from a mile away. They’re gifted like that, and they certainly don’t mind testing the boundaries night after night (and then again from time to time) to see if the rules are still in place.

Be patient, be calm, be firm, be predictable. Once they realize you’re not giving in, you’ll be free to break out the good snacks and turn on Bravo without fear of being interrupted.

And, as always, if you need some guidance and support getting your toddler sleeping well, you know where to find me!

If you’re exhausted, totally overwhelmed by your child’s sleep habits, or looking for answers to the sleep questions that keep you up at night (literally), then you’ve come to the right place. I’m Jamie, founder of Oh Baby Consulting, and my goal is to help your family get the sleep you need to not just survive, but thrive!