Picture this: It has been a long day and you are really looking forward to bedtime so you can just sit and relax. You tuck your child in, kiss him goodnight, then walk out of his bedroom. Next, you pour a glass of wine, grab some popcorn and hit play on your Netflix show. This time is so well-deserved and needed!
Seven minutes later, there is an adorable face standing in the living room making an extra request. You calmly walk him back, kiss him goodnight (again), then resume your position on the couch.
Repeat this process 16 more times and the face is not looking quite as adorable as your patience is weaning. The “me time” you were so looking forward to is precious and important in order to recharge and regroup. When children are coming out of their bedroom constantly at bedtime, it’s normal for most parents to become more frustrated with each visit. Naturally, cortisol levels rise, making it more difficult to fall asleep, and the cycle repeats.
I want to share some tips to get your toddler falling asleep instead of planning ways to leave their bedroom, and for you to get that much needed time for yourself at the end of the day.
1. Set Expectations
Often times, we take for granted that our little ones know what we expect of them, but it’s important to really communicate our expectations. This begins with the bedtime routine. Allow the bedtime routine to be very clear to your child, so he knows each predictable step, all the way up to being kissed goodnight and “I love you. I will see you in the morning.” If this is an area that needs improvement in your house, I would suggest hanging up a Bedtime Routine Chart in view of your child, listing each step, with a picture alongside. This way, if he makes an extra request, refer to the chart, and share that all the steps have been completed.
Keep in mind, if you are introducing something new just to “get through the night”, think about if you would like to continue the new factor moving forward. As Magda Gerber said, “We should begin as we wish to continue.” If you allow him to sleep in your bed “just for one night”, it is most likely going to be difficult to get him back in his bed the next night. This can begin a new trend and cause more protest the following nights.
2. Offer a Reward
I know rewards are a controversial topic and I lean more on the side of no reward for intrinsic motivation, but I have seen many success stories with short term rewards for staying in the room all night. I have used this strategy on my son when he was a toddler and was “exploring” his new found freedom from a big boy bed. It took about a week until I discontinued the reward system and he was staying in his bedroom all night, and has been doing that ever since!
By short term, I am referring to offering a reward for about two weeks, then it may not be necessary anymore. The reward can be something little from the Dollar Store or create a treasure chest for him to pick from in the morning. It is okay to show them the reward the day/night beforehand.
What does this look like? If your child stays in their room until morning, offer a small reward first thing in the morning. Try to avoid waiting too long to give the reward so the connection is made between waking up from staying in my room all night with the reward. If your child does leave their room before their designated morning wake up time, stay positive, and tell them they can try again the next night. After about two weeks, reevaluate the situation to see if a reward is still necessary or it can be discontinued once your child is sleeping through the night. You can use the excuse of “you are sleeping like a big kid now” and no longer need a prize!
If you are opposed to rewards, offer positive words of encouragement when he has had success staying in his room all night and even if he has not.
3. Indicator That Morning Has Arrived
Obviously, younger children can not tell time so having some type of indicator that morning has arrived allows your child to know it’s time to get up for the day. It can be as simple as a digital alarm clock (red in color as to not interfere with melatonin production), where you can cover up the minutes. Then discuss “Magic 7”: “Magic 7 is when we go to sleep at night and Magic 7 is when we wake up in the morning. You need to stay in this bed until Magic 7 arrives, then, you can call for me or come into my bedroom. I will be so happy to see you and we will start our day. We stay in our bed until we see Magic 7, then it’s time to get up and start our day!”
There are many different toddler clocks available that can be used to indicate morning has arrived, so whether you choose to purchase one, or use a digital clock, should not make much of a difference as long as you stay consistent with expectations.
4. Logical Consequence
Children receive attention when they leave their bedroom, either positive or negative. But instead of seeking attention during this time, their body needs to be sleeping, so we want to avoid the motivation for attention at this time. Every child I have ever known or worked with has been happier living in a world with structure and boundaries. Giving your little one free reign to do as they please sounds fantastic, but it’s too much for a child that age to navigate. The feeling that they’re completely untethered leaves them with no direction or expectations, and they end up feeling overwhelmed and unguided. So there have to be rules, and when those rules are broken, there have to be consequences. Otherwise, they’re not rules, they’re suggestions.
I would recommend coming up with some type of consequence if your child is not following the rule to stay in bed. Older children can help decide what the consequence should be.
5. Consistency is Key
“A rule is only a rule… if it’s a rule.” If you explain the rules to your child, but then only enforce them some of the time, well they’re not really rules after all. It’s confusing for a child when they don’t know if the rules apply in a specific situation, and they can end up feeling really frustrated for something that was clearly not an offense the night before. So set clear rules and enforce them 100% of the time.