Going to sleep at nighttime can be challenging for toddlers. They may be upset to miss out on the action with the family who is staying up later, they may be bored and restless, or they may be kept awake by reflecting on the day they’ve just had (much like adults do!).
Once your toddler can get out of bed and walk around, or call out to you in the night, you may experience difficulty getting them to stay in bed once you’ve set them down for the night.
Dealing with a toddler who won’t stay in bed
The first step in encouraging your toddler to go to sleep at bedtime is establishing a night-time routine. This could involve a bath, brushing teeth, and storytime. Try the best you can to avoid screens, blue light or any exciting activity in the hour leading up to bedtime. Keep bedtime consistent so your little one knows what to expect. If your toddler is having trouble staying in bed after lights out, you could try some of the following but remember that each toddler is different:
- Double-check their needs. Make sure they have enough water, check if they need to use the toilet, make sure they are at a comfortable temperature, and give them one last cuddle.
- Acknowledge how they feel and calmly return them to bed. Explain to your child that ‘it seems you’re having trouble falling asleep.’ Rather than getting angry with your child, try to remain neutral about the situation and put them back in bed. You might want to check on your toddler a few minutes later. You can encourage them by saying something like ‘you look nice and sleepy now. Good night, I love you.’
- Your toddler could be experiencing separation anxiety. Explain to them that you are close by and you’ll see them in the morning. If your toddler seems to be struggling with anxiety for two weeks or more, consult your doctor or a specialized sleep therapist.
- Perhaps your toddler truly isn’t tired. If it’s consistently taking your child longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, their bedtime may be too early. Consider letting them go to sleep a bit later. Once they’ve settled into this bedtime, you can gradually make it earlier by 10 minutes or so until they can settle at your preferred time.
- Set expectations. Remind your child that it’s time to settle down and spend some quiet time in bed. You can let them know that once they’re quiet, you’ll come back and check on them.
- Praise your child for being quiet. If you do go back to check and they’ve settled down, let them know they’re doing a great job. If they fall asleep without any issues, praise them the next morning for how well they did last night.
- Start a count down. Always prepare your little one for sleep time. Remind them 30 minutes or so before the bedtime routine begins so they can start to wind down.
- Say goodnight to everything. Explain that it’s time for everything to go to sleep; saying goodnight to toothbrush, moon, toys, etc., could help them understand bedtime means sleep time.
- Incentivize good night-time behavior with a reward chart. Set goals, like each night they don’t call out for you after lights out, they get a sticker. If they get a certain number of stickers, they can pick a treat like choosing the family movie.
- Remind your child that if they truly need something, like help going to the toilet, or if they feel pain or have a nightmare, it is okay to call for you. Sometimes they really will need your help. Other times they will just be procrastinating out of boredom.
- You may need to restrict your child to the bedroom by introducing a baby gate or keeping the door shut (if you can remain in earshot or have a baby monitor). Your toddler will most likely prefer to sleep without the gate or door closed, so try putting them back to bed and offering one more chance to fall asleep with the door open.
- If you’ve put your child back to bed multiple times and you’re sure they have everything they need and are not in danger, it is okay not to respond every time they call out. Ignoring their calls could help them learn that calling out won’t get the attention, and it is time to rest.
- When first establishing your toddler’s routine, be firm about bedtime. They must understand boundaries, so try to stick to the same routine for a few weeks before you consider adjusting bedtimes.
Falling asleep can be challenging for toddlers and adults! Encourage your toddler by supporting them through night-time struggles, explaining that you know it can be tricky, but bedtime is bedtime. A nightly reminder that you love them and will see them in the morning may help make night-time less confronting.