When transitioning into a big girl or boy bed, little ones often wake up in the middle of the night multiple times. They may be scared to be alone – or they may just want to test their parents.
“There is no right answer, no one way, no trick that works for every child” when it comes to getting kids to stay in their beds at nighttime, Children’s MD notes. “And someone somewhere will accuse you of being a bad parent, no matter how you handle your sleep-avoiding toddler.”
That said, it’s important for you to do what you think is best for your child, and it may take some time to figure out exactly what that is. What matters most, experts say, is to stay patient and committed to your approach.
Dr. Danelle Stabel, a Henry Ford Health System pediatrician based in Troy, weighs in with some tips for parents to make the transition a little bit smoother and to help effectively eliminate the headache of a toddler getting out of bed repeatedly.
Set bedtime boundaries
Toddlers get out of bed for pretty much anything – to get drink of water, go to the bathroom, grab a stuffed animal they left in another room or say “goodnight” to the dog for the 100th time. It’s important to establish boundaries and make sure that your child knows it’s bedtime – and you mean business.
“Establish a bedtime routine,” Stabel says. “Have them go to bed a certain time every night.”
Parents should be consistent. One great routine is to read a bedtime story to your child, which helps a child prepare to ease into a more restful state. He or she knows that bedtime is coming once the story is over with.
Give kids your expectations
“Parents should tell them what they expect,” Stabel says. Talk in a confident, steady tone when speaking to your child about staying in their bed. Make sure you’re consistent so your child knows what you expect from them and they stick to the plan.
“Some kids need a firm voice,” she says. “Some kids you can start off calm and then, if they aren’t listening, you use a firmer (voice).”
You should also give your child kudos and let them know when they are doing a good job. If they are staying in bed consistently, then you should acknowledge that so they know how proud you are.
“A lot of kids respond well to praise and reinforcement,” Stabel says. “A simple, ‘Wow you did so good last night'” comment of praise is a good start.
Giving your son or daughter sweets before bed is a huge no-no. It can prevent them from getting a good night’s rest.
“Before bedtime, avoid giving your child chocolate, which contains caffeine, or sugar-filled snacks such as soft candy, ice cream or cookies,” Livestrong suggests. “The caffeine in chocolate may keep your child awake at night and sugar may make it difficult for her to settle down for sleep.”
Try giving your kid a healthy snack instead and allow “30 to 60 minutes before bed for digestion,” Livestrong adds.
Kids are naturally drawn to strive towards a goal. And they especially love being able to pick out a prize and looking forward to something special. Come up with fun ideas that’ll get your child excited.
“A sticker chart could be used for a visual incentive,” Stabel says. “Maybe a special date with a parent, getting a game, little small toys or a trip to the store – try to get away from food incentives.”
Alarm clocks that change color when your child is allowed to get out of bed are another useful tool. Most change to green, because kids know “green means go.” There is even one that looks like a stoplight, so if it’s red, the child knows that they have to stay in bed.
The clock helps the child in a few key ways, Stabel says. “They have control. Then it gives them something to look at and anticipate.”
National Sleep Foundation adds, “Avoid using energy-efficient (blue) bulbs in nightlights in bedrooms and bathrooms; opt for dim red lights instead because red light has a higher wavelength and does not suppress the release of melatonin.”
“Red light does have a calming effect,” Stabel says.
You should establish a one-hour quiet time before bed and make sure your child is not using a tablet or watching television during that time. Tablets and TVs send off blue wavelengths.
“Blue wavelengths actually stimulate the sleep center of the brain to stay awake,” Stabel says. This will make it harder for the child to fall asleep.
Create a balance
Depending on your toddler, sometimes you’ll have to shut the door or put a gate up so your child doesn’t leave his or her room, Stabel says. Other times, he or she will listen to you and will stay put until the morning.
“The biggest thing parents are going to need is persistence,” she says.
You don’t have to be strict all time, though. If your child had a bad dream or isn’t feeling well, of course, it’s OK to comfort them.
“Around toddler age is when they start having nightmares and night terrors,” Stabel says. It’s important to make your child feel safe and reassure him or her that you are there.
However, don’t let your child come into your room and into your bed. If you have to come in their room every 15 minutes or so, that’s OK. Remember, your child will eventually fall asleep.
This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly.