Saying goodbye to the crib and hello to a toddler bed marks a major childhood milestone! If you have gone through this transition with your own toddler, then you know that even the best of sleepers can start to struggle with bedtime.
Often, the challenge is not coaxing your toddler to sleep in his new bed, but rather to stay in his new bed. Why? For the first time in his life, your toddler now has the ability to get out of bed whenever he wants. No waiting for you to come in, no climbing crib rails; he can now simply hop out of bed at will.
It can take some time for toddlers to adjust to this newfound freedom and accept that they need to stay in bed. Often times, this is the start of a cycle of bedtime frustration. Parents will find their toddler comes out of the room over, and over, and over until finally falling asleep hours after bedtime.
So, how to do you stop the toddler jack-in-a-box cycle and get your toddler to stay in bed?
Double Check Your Schedule
Make sure that your toddler is appropriately tired at bedtime. For napping toddlers, bedtime should be 4-5 hours after they wake from nap, and should be early enough to allow for 11-12 hours of nighttime sleep.
For non-napping toddlers, bedtime should be 12-13 hours after waking for the day.
If you are putting your toddler to bed too early, your toddler won’t be sleepy and will have a hard time staying in bed. If you are putting your toddler to bed too late, he will be overtired and also have a hard time staying in bed.
You’ll know you hit the sweet spot when your toddler is asleep within about 15 minutes.
Be Clear & Consistent About Your Expectations
Toddlers crave consistency but also test boundaries like it is their job; because it is! If given the choice between staying in bed or getting out, your toddler is going to choose to get out.
So, be very clear that your expectation is that your toddler stay in bed all night (potty breaks being the exception, of course). Now, telling your toddler to stay in bed does not mean that he will automatically start doing so. But, you are laying the groundwork that the rest of your actions will back up. The rule for nighttime is staying in bed.
This means that you need a consistent response to your toddler leaving his bed. Don’t return him one time and let him watch TV on the couch with you the next time because that feels confusing to him. In his mind, if you let him watch TV one time then it is always worth checking to see if maybe you’ll let him watch TV with you again.
When you hear those little feet start pattering down the hall, it is time to kindly but firmly and swiftly return your toddler to bed.
Keep Your Toddler In Bed
To teach your toddler to stay in bed, you have two primary options.
The first is to walk your toddler back to bed each and every time. This really does work, but you need to be prepared to do it dozens of times the first few nights. It will take some time for your toddler to see that you really do want the to stay in bed and they can stop getting out to see if you’ll put them back again.
The trick with this method is to keep calm. Even if you are flustered inside, don’t show it on the outside. Calmly, quietly, and quickly walk your child back to bed. Rinse, wash, repeat until your child falls asleep.
Check On Your Child Before Your Child Checks On You
There is another method that is wonderfully successful as well. I call this one “Excuse me, I’ll be right back”. With this method, you put your toddler to bed, say good night, and tell him you will be right back to check on him. Then, you leave the room but return before he has a chance to get out of bed.
It goes something like this “Excuse me, I need to go check on the laundry. I’ll be right back to check on you”. Then, you leave the room to do whatever you told your child you were going to go to.
The key is that you return before he has a chance to get out of bed. The goal is for your toddler to trust that you will do as you say and check on them.
It may very well be that you come back a mere 30 seconds later if your toddler has been getting out of bed right away. Or, you may know that you can safely wait 5 minutes before coming back for the first time.
When you return, praise your child for remaining in bed and tell them you will be right back to check on him again. It is key you keep the check in quick, so aim to be back out of the room in under a minute.
Continue until your child falls asleep, slowly increasing the time you are out of the room as your toddler becomes more skilled at staying in bed. As the time before your first check lengthens, after a few nights you will find that your child falls asleep before you return for the first check.
Consider a Toddler Clock
Toddler clocks are an amazing addition to any parent’s sleep toolbox. Toddler clocks are color coded clocks that visually tell toddlers when it is time for bed and when it is time to get up.
These clocks are perfect for toddlers since they cannot yet tell time with a traditional clock.
By their second birthday, toddlers are able to start using a toddler clock, even if they cannot yet name colors. Each night at bed, simply point to the clock and say “time for bed”. In the morning, do the same but say “time to get up”. Over time, your child will associate one color on the clock with bedtime and the other with waking up.
For older toddlers, you can get more detailed and explain that when the clock is red (my favorite nighttime color) it is time to stay in bed. When the clock turns green in the morning, they may get out of bed.
While it is easy to get wrapped up with the frustration of a toddler who repeatedly gets out of bed, it is crucially important to remember to celebrate their success. Toddlers love attention and they love praise.
If you choose the walk back method, the next morning find something to praise your toddler for about the previous night. Perhaps, doing a better job keeping their body in bed or doing a good job hugging their teddy bear.
If you choose the “Excuse me” method, briefly praise your child when you return to check on him and also in the morning.
With patience and consistency, your toddler will adjust to the newfound freedom of the toddler bed and stop getting out of bed after bedtime. I do suggest waiting until age 3 to move to a toddler bed if possible. Most 3-year-olds have better impulse control and are more easily able to stay in bed after bedtime than younger toddlers.
Set your child up for success by double checking his schedule and making sure that bedtime is not too early or too late. Be clear with your expectations and be consistent in your response to your toddler if he does get out of bed.
A toddler clock can be a great visual aid for your child. Also, don’t forget to celebrate wins! Even small successes are worthy of celebration.
Sometimes, staying in bed is not the only sleep struggle a family is facing. If getting your child through the bedtime routine and into bed is a struggle, this post on stopping toddler tantrums at bedtime is for you. If your toddler is waking during the night, this post on toddler night waking is one you don’t want to miss.
Bottom line, don’t give up! One tough night, or even a month or year of tough nights does not define your child or you. Make a plan, choose a night to start using your plan, and then be consistent. Have a friend who is struggling with how to get her toddler to stay in bed as well? Share this blog and become toddler sleep partners. It is always more fun to do life with a friend!