Help Your Toddler Stay In Their Room After Lights Out
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 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 and my baby 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.
But now what. My baby isn’t so much a baby anymore.
He had learned to walk and talk. More importantly, to test some boundaries, and started leaving the bedroom in the night.
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. 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?
Boundaries, mama. Boundaries are the key.
I should start off here by saying that I think it’s only fair to always give one warning before implementing an action to hold the boundary firm and stop the 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 to remain in bed in their room until morning. Walk them calmly back to bed. Say goodnight, give them a smooch, and let them know that you will be following through with the action 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.
When they show up in the living room again, saying that they forgot to tell you something. That their water is too warm. Or that they can’t find their stuffie (which is in their hand) it’s time to follow through on your action to hold the boundary firm.
Now we get to the big question, right? What’s the boundary?
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.”
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. We’re just looking to hold the boundary firm enough to dissuade the behavior.
Understanding that every child is different. Nothing works for everyone. But I do have a simple trick that I’ve found to be incredibly effective in this situation. It’s as simple as closing their door. Creating a visual and physical boundary for your child.
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.
Creating these bedtime boundaries and following through with an action to help hold that boundary firm may upset your child. But it will also help them feel secure knowing that no matter how hard they push, this boundary is unchanging. 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. They may pitch a fit, let them, but don’t give in. If you do, all you’re teaching them is that they need to hit the roof in order to get their way. I can assure you this is going to make things significantly worse.
What if your toddler already sleeps with the door closed?
You can try taking away their lovey/stuffie/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 firm boundaries around bedtime 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. You really can’t hold that against them. Chances are, they legitimately woke up and didn’t know if it was time to get out of bed or not.
If you have a few bucks to spare, you can get yourself 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. These sweet little gizmos shine a soft light when it’s time to get up. Just stay away from any that shine blue light throughout the night, as it emulates sunlight, which 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 get a digital clock. Put 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.
Consistency is key.
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 have to 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.