Family, Kids & Relationships

How to get your toddler to stay in bed (and how to stay sane in the meantime)

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How do you get a toddler to stay in bed? If your two-year-old, three-year-old, or four-year-old has transitioned out of a crib and into a toddler bed or big kid bed, or just learned to climb out of their crib, you’re likely not getting much peace and quiet at night.

Babies are often not great at sleeping through the night, so you may have already been through some kind of sleep training with your little one at another stage. But now that your kid can get out of bed, open doorknobs, and wreak havoc, it’s another story.

It’s normal for toddlers to get out of bed frequently. But when your child is repeatedly waking you up or won’t settle down despite your best efforts at creating a calming bedtime routine, it can be frustrating, exhausting — even infuriating — as a parent.

There are steps you can take to guide your child toward a healthier sleep routine, even if things seem chaotic right now. Just keep in mind that your toddler’s nighttime habits are not going to change overnight. It’s a process that takes patience, but rest assured that you can and will get through this phase.

Stay calm and minimize interaction

The goal is to train your toddler to stay calm and quiet at night, so you’ll need to calmly and quietly enforce bedtime boundaries.

If your toddler needs to go to the bathroom, or they’re sick, then of course you should help take care of their immediate needs. If they had a nightmare, it’s OK to give hugs.

But if they don’t actually need anything essential besides your attention, which is often the case, simply walk them back to their bed silently, and leave. Do this as many times as you need to — and it may be dozens and dozens of times.

During this process, don’t show your anger or frustration, and don’t try to lecture them about what to do or not do, or why. Just interact as little as possible so as not to give them anything to escalate into a tantrum, argument, or more attention-seeking behaviors.

If you keep it very calm and quiet and just direct them back to their bed, they will eventually get the message that bedtime is for being calm and quiet and staying in bed.

If at any point, they choose to stay in their room while looking at books or playing quietly, it’s best to leave them alone. They’re self-soothing, after all, and they’ll get tired eventually.

Tell them you’ll check on them

If your toddler seems clingy at bedtime, making the bedtime routine draw out for hours, try this strategy.

After you tuck in your little one with comforting words and cuddles, tell them you’ll check on them in five minutes. Or tell them you need to take out the garbage or do the dishes, if that will help you get out of the room for a little while.

When you return, tell your kiddo they’re doing a great job staying in bed. Repeat as needed, slowly extending the time you’re out of the room until your child falls asleep. Knowing you’re coming back is enough to soothe many kids.

Make sure they feel safe, cozy, and sleepy

When it’s not the middle of the night, you can brainstorm and work toward other solutions if you think something else is at play with your toddler besides their newfound independence.

Some little kids may feel insecure in their bed, especially if they recently transitioned to a big kid bed or toddler floor bed. Maybe a toddler bed rail, or simply a rolled-up blanket, pillow or pool noodle under the edge of the fitted sheet, would make them feel safer. Maybe they could use cozier pajamas, a warmer blanket, a toddler sleepsack, or even a lullaby.

If they seem overly excited at night, think about introducing some regulating strategies during the rest of the day, like limiting screen time and other bright lights after dinnertime, getting them fresh air and sunlight early in the day, and making sure their nap doesn’t go too late or too long.

If they’re afraid of monsters or the dark, make a special poster or create a comforting routine that’ll help them feel safe. Role-play a cozy, safe nighttime with dolls or stuffed animals.

If you’ve tried seemingly everything and it’s been several weeks or months, ask your pediatrician for suggestions. Some doctors might recommend kids’ melatonin supplements as a short-term solution.

Reinforce positive behavior

When your toddler does stay in bed, or only wakes you for an emergency, make sure to tell them the next day what a great job they did. This helps reinforce the type of behavior you expect, and gives them something to be proud of. It also helps reassure them that you’ll be there for the important things.

Above all, remember that toddlers are never trying to torture you with their behavior. They simply don’t understand how their actions affect other people, and that includes the fact that you have to lose sleep when they…well, wake you up. Feel free to explain it when you’re too tired to play with them during the day, but they might not fully understand it for a few more years, and that’s okay.

Try to focus on what they are really good at at this stage, such as being curious, imaginative, full of energy, and not afraid to say what’s on their mind. In the meantime, your toddler will learn to stay in bed — eventually.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.