For many parents, getting their baby to sleep through the night is a life-altering event. Waking up every hour or two to the sounds of a crying baby isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s downright exhausting. As a new mom operating on very little sleep and faced with a whole new set of life challenges, I was tired and crabby and found it nearly impossible to focus on much of anything except just making it through the day. And, some days, I felt like I might be on the verge of an actual nervous breakdown.
I was so relieved when my baby started sleeping through the night, that I didn’t even care what hoops I had to jump through or how long it took to get him to sleep. And that was where I went wrong. Because babies who need help falling asleep turn into toddlers who need help falling asleep. And the older he got, the longer it took and the more ridiculous the hoop-jumping became. This is how, like so many parents, I got suckered into sleeping with my toddler every night.
Toddlers typically push the limits
What makes the toddler group so tricky when it comes to sleep, is that although they are big enough to ditch the crib, they have very little impulse control and can be pretty persistent when they’re trying to get their way. It seems that as soon as they begin to talk, they are already sharpening their tactical skills in the art of manipulation and hostage negotiation. But this is actually a good thing! Because testing boundaries is how they learn about how things work at home and in the world around them. The problem is, when they find an approach that works, they tend to stick with it and give it their all.
When kiddos know what the boundary is, and we respond predictably and consistently, it helps them to feel confident and secure. On the other hand, when boundaries shift and the rules aren’t consistent, it leaves them feeling insecure and unsure about our role as parents.
Maybe your toddler is suffering from a giant case of FOMO and is worried about all the fun she’s missing out on outside her bedroom door. If asking for one more story, another hug or a drink of water gets mom back in the room or making another trip to the bathroom will help to satisfy that curious little mind, you can bet she’s going to keep asking. Because it’s working! Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to indulge those extra requests or find yourself walking her back to her bedroom for the tenth time. As long as you play along, you’re going to be caught up in this bedtime game, night after night. Because as far as young children are concerned, even a boring game is still a game.
So, what’s the answer? Bearing in mind that getting upset will only exacerbate the problem and giving in to her demands is just going to encourage repeat behavior. What can you do to get off the bedtime roller coaster and take back your Netflix and Chill?
Consequences, mama. Consequences are the key.
I want to start off by saying that I think it’s only fair to talk with kids, on their level, about the new changes you’re going to make at bedtime. If you’ve been giving in to your little one’s bedtime shenanigans for several months (or years), it isn’t fair to just spring this new set of expectations on them cold turkey.
When I work one-on-one with a family, I often talk with kids about how sleep is their special superpower! And just like it took their favorite superhero some practice to get really good at slingin’ webs or throwing hammers, it’s going to take some practice to learn how to get better at their superpower, too.
It’s important to remember that kids are only able to see things in black and white. So, it’s best to keep it simple and give them a simple chart of bedtime rules (like staying in bed and lying quietly) and then give one warning before carrying out a consequence for unwanted behavior.
If your child leaves their room, start by asking them what’s going on. Assuming the answer isn’t because they’re not feeling well, (which can often be an excuse, but should always at least be investigated before calling it such) then you can calmly but firmly remind them of their “Sleep Rules” and tell them that they’re not allowed out of their room until it’s morning and their clock says 7, or is the color yellow… or whatever the rule is you’ve decided on.
Walk them back to bed, say goodnight, give them a quick hug and kiss, 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 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, or that they’d prefer to drink their water from the red cup, not the blue cup, or that they can’t find their stuffy… it’s time to implement that consequence.
Now we get to the big question, right? What is the consequence?
I’ve had a lot of parents tell me, “I know I need to discipline him somehow, but what we’re doing isn’t working and I really don’t want to make him more upset because it will take even longer to get him to go to sleep.” And I totally get that. But honestly, what is a consequence if it’s not something unpleasant? How is it ever going to discourage unwanted behavior if it isn’t somehow disagreeable? The simple answer is - it won’t.
The trick here is to find a balance between something that your child doesn’t mind and something that really throws them off the rails, because we don’t want to traumatize anyone here. We’re just looking for something unpleasant enough to curb unwanted behavior.
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. 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 – even if they sleep with their door closed. You don’t have to do it for long. Just a minute for the first offense, then bump it up by 30 seconds every time your toddler leaves their room that night.
As I said, consequences are not meant to be enjoyable. Which is kind of the point, right? So, if they voice their feelings in the form of crying or yelling, you’re going to have to hold your boundary and 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 negotiate and don’t give in. If you do, all you’re teaching them is that they just need to hit the roof in order to get their way, and that’s going to make things significantly worse. Trust me.
If your toddler already sleeps with the door closed, not to worry. It can still be very effective. But if that’s not doing the trick and they break out again, you can also try taking away their lovey/stuffy/blanky in addition to the door-closing technique. A minute on the first go-round, 30 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.
Okay. That covers the night, but what about those early morning bedside visits at 5:00 a.m.? Well… you really can’t get mad about those. Chances are that they legitimately woke up and didn’t know if it was time to get out of bed or not.
Handling early morning wake-ups
For situations like this, I suggest investing in some type of toddler clock that lets them know when it’s morning with a picture or shines a soft light that’s one color through the night, and another when it’s time to get up. (Just stay away from any that shine white or blue lights, as those colors simulate sunlight, which can make it tougher to get back to sleep.)
Or, if you want to save some money, and your toddler knows their numbers, you can use a cheap, digital clock (preferably with red-lit numbers). Put some tape over the minutes (leaving just the hour number showing) and tell them it’s not time to get up until they see the “magic seven” on the clock.
Hold firm and stick to your guns
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 and hold firm 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 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 going to budge, you’ll be free to break out the good snacks and turn on the grown-up shows without fear of being interrupted.
Pediatric Sleep Consultant & owner of My Sleep Fairy
Krista lives in Boise Idaho with her 7-year-old son, Carver — a self-described “Sleep Fairy In Training.” Together, they provide support, encouragement and a bit of comic relief to sleep-deprived families worldwide, who are looking for gentle solutions to their child’s sleep issues.
If you’re exhausted, frustrated and overwhelmed because you have a little one who isn’t sleeping well — you’re not alone! And there is something you can do about it. Krista offers a complimentary sleep evaluation to help parents identify the root cause of their child’s specific challenges and provide them with honest, personalized information about how to get the results they want so that everyone in the family can start getting the sleep they need and deserve.
Get more helpful infant and toddler sleep tips at www.mysleepfairy.net. You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram @mysleepfairy.