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, and unable to keep track of anything.
When I finally started sleep training and my oldest learned to sleep 10-12 hours a night without any help from me, and got into a predictable rhythm with naps, it felt like nothing short of a miracle. So when it came time to switch him to a big kid bed when my second child was on his way, I was apprehensive to say the least. Looking back, I really lucked out with him. He only got up to use the potty and wouldn’t even bother to wake us. He would tuck himself back in. Like I said, I think that was more luck than anything I did.
I’m now getting ready to transition my third baby to a big girl bed, and I must admit, I’m a little nervous. She has probably tested boundaries the most of my three kids so I’m preparing myself for everything and anything.
A toddler leaving their bedroom 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 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 behaviours 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 favourite 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 behaviour, 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 behaviour. 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 stunt, 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 behaviour that’s been going on for a while already, 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 stuffy (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 dissuade unwanted behaviour if it isn’t somehow disagreeable?
The simple answer is, it won’t. I had a friend once who used to punish her toddler by putting him in “Time-out” for five minutes. Time-out, of course, meant sitting on Mom’s lap while she rubbed his back and sang to him.
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 dissuade the behaviour.
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 thirty seconds 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 hit the roof 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/stuffy/blanket on the same time pattern as you would with the door-closing technique. A minute on the first go-round, thirty seconds 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.
One solution to this is to get a toddler clock, like a GroClock, or something similar.
These sweet little devices have stars on the face of the clock through the night, a sun when it’s time to get up. Just remember to turn the light down to its dimmest setting as too much blue light can stimulate cortisol production and make it tougher to get back to sleep.
Or, if you want to save your money, and your toddler knows their numbers, you can do what I did and just get a digital clock and 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 six” on the clock. Don’t set the alarm though. If they’re able to sleep past six o’clock, you don’t want them waking up with a jolt when the radio 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 isn’t optional is consistency. You absolutely must stick to your guns 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, but be firm and predictable. Once they realize that you’re not giving in, you’ll be free to break out the good snacks and turn on Netflix without fear of being discovered.