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
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 to the sounds of a crying baby wasn’t just an inconvenience. It 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 coaching and my Son 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.
And conversely, when my Son wasn’t so much of a baby anymore and had learned to walk and talk, and more importantly, to test some boundaries, and started leaving the bedroom at bedtime, I was apprehensive to say the least.
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 coaching a baby is that your little one, by this age – 2.5 to 3 years old, has probably learned a few negotiating tactics. I’m not saying this in a negative way, but toddlers quickly learn how people work. It’s not that they’re malicious or conniving, it’s just human nature. We test behaviour 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 mum 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 favourite 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 behaviour, how do we get a toddler to stay in their room without letting the situation escalate?
Connection, Sleep Manners and Consequences!
I should start off here by saying that I think it’s only fair to set expectations by clearly communicating what/how you want your child to behave in a way that is age friendly and always give a warning before a consequence is implemented for off-track behaviour and remember off-track behaviour can be your child’s way of telling you they want to spend time with you.
It is also very important to note that most 2.5-3.5 years no longer need a nap, if your child is still taking a nap and bedtime battles have started then it is time to drop the nap.
I find the one of the reasons or certainly a contributing factor for a child leaving their bedroom or miss-behaving at bedtime is due to their need for connection, to spend time with you, especially if you have been working and they have been at Day-care. One way to boost this connection is with special time. After dinner but before the bedtime routine begins carve out some 1:1 time, with no distractions and allow your child to lead the play, big body play is great as this also releases tension and the natural build up of cortisol, games I like are:
Sleep manners are a good way of communicating exactly what you need your child to do at bedtime. In my house they are:
I have the sleep manners in picture form too, this really helps with communicating how to behave, you can take it up a step and take a picture of your child doing the 4 sleep manners and print them off to help with communicating what the manners are at bedtime.
Once you have communicated what the manners are in your house you can then tell your child what happens if we don’t follow the manners i.e. a consequence.
Always give one warning before implementing a consequence for unwanted behaviour. 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 meant to be sleeping. Walk them back to bed, say goodnight, give them a quick smooch, and let them know that there will be a consequence if they leave their room again.
Warning - always give one warning!
Mummy needs you to….
BECAUSE (this is the magic word) if you don’t mummy will need to…..<tell your child what your consequence is>
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, that’s when implementing your consequence comes in.
When they show up in the living room again, saying that they forgot to tell you something, or that their water is too warm, or that they can’t find their teddy (which is, of course, in their hand when they say this) it’s time to implement that consequence.
Now we get to the big question, right? What’s the consequence? 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.”
I totally understand this line of thinking, but really, what is a consequence if it’s not something unpleasant? How is it ever going to dissuade unwanted behaviour if it isn’t somehow disagreeable?
The simple answer is, it won’t.
We don’t want endless shouting or threats that you will never follow through on or that are so far away from the behaviour it makes no real sense; I once said no pudding tomorrow if you don’t go to sleep L.O.L
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, because we don’t want to traumatize anyone here. We’re just looking for something unpleasant enough to dissuade the behaviour.
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.
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 consequence, then bump it up by thirty seconds or so every time your toddler leaves their room that night – the increments of time is important and you only need to give a warning once, on the other occasions it is about your actions.
Like I said, this is a form of consequence and if your child doesn’t like it, well, that’s kind of the point, right? 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. If they pitch a fit, let them, but 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.
If your toddler already sleeps with the door closed, you can try taking away their teddy/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 negative consequences of leaving their room/being miss-behaved, 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, and you really can’t hold that against them. Chances are that they legitimately woke up and didn’t know if it was time to get out of bed or not.
If you have a few pounds to spare, you can get yourself a gro 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 £15 to £50. These sweet little gizmos shine a soft light that shows when it is morning, just switch off the blue night light, as it simulates 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 try my alternative to the gro clock and just get a digital clock and put some 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 when the radio suddenly fires off.
These are just a couple of options and they may not work with every toddler. 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 GOT without fear of being discovered.
If you would benefit from a toddler sleep assessment and details of my digital toolkits and sleep packages – then let’s chat, my packages start from £149