How to Keep a Toddler in Bed

After a full day of childcare and accomplishing a multitude of other tasks at home or at work, you’re probably looking forward to a few moments to yourself or finishing up any remaining chores now that you’ve safely tucked your toddler in bed.

Then it happens. Hearing a little voice call out from the top of the staircase or seeing a small face peeking out at you from around the corner can be a frustrating experience, especially if you had plans for an actual activity.

A toddler not really ready for bed

Is this just a phase that you have to live through, or is there something you can actually do to help your child learn to stay in bed? The answer is probably a little bit of both, but with some thoughtful planning, determination and patience, you should be able to look forward to quiet evenings once again.

Why Toddler Sleep is Important

All humans need proper amounts of sleep, but the effects of inadequate rest seem to be especially harsh for young children. Healthy sleep contributes to normal growth, immune function, body weight and learning capability, and research reveals that children can start feeling the repercussions of too little rest after missing just one hour of sleep for four consecutive days.

Setting a reasonable bedtime and helping your child learn to fall asleep more easily can have a positive outcome right away and in the long run. Since many children are naturally early risers, quality sleep earlier in the evening can be the key to your child getting the overall amount of sleep they need each day.

Why Do Toddlers Feel the Need to Get Out of Bed?

Exactly what’s going through a toddler’s mind at any given time is usually a mystery to parents. While you may not be able to know for certain, these are a few possible reasons why your child is getting out of bed.

They Want to Assert Some Independence

Young children are just learning that they are individuals with a degree of say in the events of their lives. What they do not understand, however, is that they can’t always have whatever they want, and they also need to learn that they must obey the rules that you as their parent set in place.
Make no mistake, even though a toddler may not be able to express it well, they can usually identify an opportunity when they see one. Whether they want some extra time to play or the freedom to choose when they go to sleep, your child may be getting out of bed in an attempt to control the situation.

They are Testing Boundaries

When you had your child safely confined to the crib, they had no choice but to stay put whether they were asleep or awake. With the move to a toddler bed, your child now has the option of choosing whether to stay in bed or get out.

It’s likely that your child wants to know exactly what they can get away with, and experimenting seems like the best way to find out. Your child may try to see how far down the hall they can get without you noticing or how many times they can get up to play with toys before there is a consequence.

They are Afraid of Being Left Out

You’ve got to admit, you can’t really blame your child if they suffer from fear of missing out.

Toddlers are incredibly curious, and they usually love to take part in anything the family is doing. Especially if they hear noise or activity in another room, your child’s curiosity may drive them to get up and investigate what’s going on.

They Want Your Attention

Even though you make time to play and interact with your child throughout the day, toddlers seem to have a bottomless appetite for adult attention.

While your child would probably prefer for you to read stories, cuddle and sing to them all night, they may also settle for getting negative attention. Repeatedly getting out of bed could be your child’s way of getting just a little more of your undivided time.

Advance Preparation

Let Go of Guilt

Regardless of what other people may say or how upset your child gets, don’t start to believe that you’re being overly harsh by enforcing a reasonable bedtime.

As a parent, you always want to see your child happy. Hearing that little voice crying for you from their bedroom doorway or seeing your child’s tears when you take them back to bed can make it all too easy to start questioning yourself and your parenting decisions.

Remember: Your child is too young to realize that everything they want isn’t always good for them. Adequate sleep benefits your child in both the short term and the long term, so don’t let feelings of guilt stop you from doing what is in your child’s best interests.

Look at Your Child’s Overall Sleeping Schedule

The human body has a total daily sleep requirement, and if your child is doing too much of their sleeping in the morning or the afternoon, that could definitely be causing some problems at bedtime.

Especially if your child has started getting out of bed suddenly, you may need to re-evaluate your child’s napping habits. Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Your child may be taking too long of a nap
  • Your child could be napping too late in the day
  • It might be time to transition to just one nap if they currently take two

It can be really tough to lose any of that daytime break while your child naps. Sometimes, though, you have to make the hard call so that everyone can benefit in the long run.

Try the path of least resistance first. Wake your child up from their nap a few minutes earlier, and keep decreasing the nap length in small increments each day.

You can also try changing the timing of your child’s nap. Most toddlers need at least three hours of awake time between a nap and bedtime, so try moving your child’s nap time a few minutes earlier each day. Waking your child up in the morning a bit earlier might also help make this transition a little easier.

Most toddlers are ready to take just one nap a day somewhere between their first and second birthday. Try skipping the morning nap and putting your child down for their afternoon nap a bit earlier than usual.

Set Boundaries

Your child will likely feel more comfortable when they have an idea of what you expect of them. Take some time to think about the behaviors you are comfortable with, and come up with a plan to implement them.

Explain your expectations

Whatever boundaries you choose to put in place, make sure to take the time to talk them over with your child before the new rules take effect. The concept you are trying to get across is that some behaviors are acceptable while others are not.

Since most toddlers aren’t able to follow much more than very basic instructions, use simple words and demonstrate if needed. You can say something like, “After we say goodnight, you need to stay in your bed. These are some things that are ok for you to do after bedtime.”

Quiet activities in their bed

If you are comfortable with your child having some time to play in bed, you can give them a couple of books or quiet toys. You may want to have some “special” bedtime items that your child can only use in their bed.

Drinks. If your child repeatedly comes to find you to ask for a drink after bedtime, you may want to leave a cup with a small amount of water within easy reach in your child’s room. You just might find that giving your child the opportunity to have a drink whenever they want may make the appeal wear off fairly quickly. Tip: A spill-proof cup is definitely a good idea.
If you find that your child asks for water several times because they are truly thirsty, you may want to take a look at how much sodium your child consumes throughout the day, particularly at dinner.

Make an actual physical boundary. Some parents find great success with installing a baby gate in the bedroom doorway. In addition to giving you some peace of mind that your toddler can’t wander around the house, your child may find that they have less temptation to leave their bedroom once you remove the opportunity.

Preparing for Bedtime

Establish a Bedtime Routine

Having a predictable routine every night lets your child know what to expect, and it may help them understand that bedtime can be a calming and relaxing part of their day.

Here are some ideas that usually work well for building a bedtime routine for toddlers:

  • Brush teeth
  • Bedtime story
  • Get in pajamas
  • Warm bath
  • Cuddle with special toy
  • Lullaby
  • Turn on night light

You don’t have to use every idea on the list. You know your child best, so pick the ones that you think would work for your child, or you can also choose your own calming activities. The main goal is to establish a routine that your toddler can enjoy and count on every night.

Limit Sugar and Caffeine in the Evening

Sugar and caffeine are known stimulants, and small bodies often feel their effects to a much greater extent than adults.

Make it a point to avoid sugar near bedtime whenever possible. If you’re in the habit of giving your toddler a sugary dessert after dinner, try cutting back the portion size or offering a naturally-sweetened fruit dessert.

When it comes to caffeine, it’s probably safe to assume that you’re not giving your child a double shot of espresso after dinner or at any other time of the day. However, your little one could still be getting caffeine from some unexpected foods.

Chocolate is probably the biggest offender when it comes to sneaky sources of caffeine in your child’s diet. One ounce of dark chocolate can have up to 12 milligrams of caffeine, and milk chocolate is only somewhat better at nine milligrams per 1.55 ounces. Since they usually contain high amounts of sugar in addition to caffeine, other chocolatey treats like hot cocoa and ice cream could actually double the risk of an ill-timed energy burst.

If your child is a chocolate lover, try to give them their treat earlier in the day.

Avoid Screen Time After Dinner

Sunlight contains a broad spectrum of light wavelengths, and the human brain uses these various wavelengths to establish a healthy sleep/wake cycle known as the circadian rhythm. When your eyes absorb the bright blue wavelengths during the day, your brain tells your body that it’s time to be awake. As the sun sets and the blue light fades, your body starts to shift into rest mode.

Computer, television, smartphone and tablet screens all produce high amounts of blue light. When your child’s brain perceives blue light during the evening, it can disrupt your child’s circadian rhythm by tricking the brain into thinking it’s daytime rather than night. If your child’s brain is over-stimulated at bedtime, they may feel restless and driven to get up, walk around and make sure you aren’t doing anything interesting.

Try giving your child quiet toys or read books together after dinner. These types of activities give your child’s brain a chance to relax and naturally wind down for bed, and they can help increase the likelihood of your child staying in bed and falling asleep more easily.

After Bedtime

Choose one of these ideas to try with your child, or you may need to use some kind of combination to find the method that works best for your situation.

Tell Your Child You Will Check on Them Shortly, and Do It

This one might seem counterintuitive; after all, isn’t your goal to get your child to fall asleep independently? Yes, but one of the best ways to achieve that goal can be by building trust with your child.

  1. After saying goodnight, tell your child you need to go load the dishwasher, check on a load of laundry or do some other small task. Let your child know that you will come and check on them after finishing your job, and tell them that you expect them to stay in bed until you come back. By breaking the time up into smaller chunks, you can give your child a more achievable goal.
  2. Be sure to follow through and return when you said you would. Don’t make a big deal about being back, just peek through the doorway and make eye contact with your little one. Tell them they are doing great and that you will be back again after another small job.
  3. Increase the time by a few minutes between checks. Hopefully, your child will soon feel comfortable enough to fall asleep on their own without the need for you to peek in.

You may have to repeat this process a few times over the first couple of nights, but the idea is to reassure your child that you don’t forget about them after bedtime and they can trust you to come if they need you.

Give Your Child a Choice

Tell your child that you are willing to leave the door open as long as they stay in bed, but you will have to close the door if they get up. By letting your child have a choice, they can have a bit of control over the situation.

If they choose to have the door open, express your confidence that they can stay in bed. If your child does get up, always follow through with closing the door after returning them to bed even if your child protests.

A good night light is essential if there is the chance you will have to go the closed-door route, so take a look at this list of our favorite lights for some shopping ideas.

Return Your Child to Bed Quietly and Calmly

Making the return trip to bed a dull one could help your child see that their efforts to stay up longer not only won’t pay off, but they also won’t get a very satisfying reaction out of you.

No matter how you may feel inside, don’t yell or make a big deal out of the fact that your child disobeyed. Instead, maintain as composed an attitude as you can and quietly walk your child back to bed. Set them back in bed gently, tell them it’s time to sleep and leave quietly.

You may have to take your child back to bed numerous times for a few days. However, your child should eventually come to the conclusion that getting out of bed just isn’t worth the trouble, especially if their body is actually ready to rest after all your other efforts.

In the Morning

Use Positive Reinforcement

Toddlers often hear about what they do wrong, and correcting errant behavior is indeed an important part of parenting. However, make sure you also take the time to recognize and praise good behavior.

If your child had a good night and didn’t get up at all or just once, tell them how proud you are and that staying in their bed shows that they are a big boy/girl.

A visual reminder like a sticker chart could also provide some positive reinforcement. Stickers are often a favorite with toddlers, and placing one of their choosing on their very own chart could be a powerful motivator.

Don’t Dwell on Bad Nights

Your goal here is not to overlook problems, but to keep the focus on the future rather than the past.

There’s nothing wrong with a brief conversation with your child if they had a hard time staying in bed the night before, but leave it at that and express confidence that tonight will be better. Then move on with your day and don’t revisit the topic unless your child happens to bring it up themselves.

One of the most important jobs you have as a parent is to help your child learn the skills they need to stay healthy and control their impulses. Getting to the point where your child stays in bed and falls asleep independently might require some time and commitment on your part, but the investment is well worth it.

Did you have a problem with your toddler getting out of bed? Did you try any of these tricks, or did something else work for you? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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