Updated: May 30
Getting your baby to sleep through the night is life-changing for many parents. 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 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 training, and my baby learned to sleep 10-12 hours a night without my help and got into a predictable rhythm with naps, it felt like nothing short of a miracle. And conversely, when my baby 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 in the night, I was apprehensive, to say the least.
Toddler refusing bedtime
A toddler leaving their bedroom may sound harmless, but if it happens often enough, it can be as hard on parents and children as constant night waking. And toddlers can be incredibly persistent when trying to get their way.
What makes this scenario trickier than sleep training a baby is that your little one, by this age, has probably learned a few negotiating tactics. I’m not negatively saying this, but toddlers quickly learn to manipulate people. It’s not that they’re malicious or conniving; it’s just human nature. We test behaviours and actions to see if they get us what we’re after, and when we find something that works, we use it repeatedly.
So if asking for a glass of water gets mom back into the room or asking to use the bathroom helps satisfy your curiosity about what’s happening outside of your room after hours, you’re likely to use the same approach every time. That can be a soothing fact to remember when you’re walking your child back to their room for the 15th 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 encourage more of the same behaviour, how do we get a toddler to stay in their room without letting the situation escalate? Consequences, mama. Consequences are the key.
I should start here by saying that it’s only fair to 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 not allowed out of their room until morning. Walk them back to bed, say goodnight, give them a quick smooch, and let them know there will be a consequence if they leave their room again.
Hopefully, that does the trick. More than likely, especially if this behaviour has 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 their water is too warm, or that they can’t find their bunny (which is, of course, in their hand when they say this), it’s time to implement that consequence.
Consequences for toddlers: Balancing discipline and empathy
Now we get to the big question. What’s the consequence? I’ve had many 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 what is the point of a consequence if it’s not something unpleasant? How will it ever dissuade unwanted behaviour if it isn’t somehow disagreeable?
The simple answer is it won’t. I had a friend once who used to punish her toddler by putting him in “Time-out” for five minutes. Time-out meant sitting on Mom’s lap while she rubbed his back and sang to him. I used to consider chucking a toy or two myself to see if it would get me a quick massage and a soothing rendition of my favourite Fleetwood Mac song.
The trick here is to find a balance between something your child doesn’t mind and something that throws them into a tailspin because we don’t want to traumatise anyone here. We’re just looking for something unpleasant enough to dissuade the behaviour.
Shutting toddler's door at night
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.
That’s the trick.
Yep, that’s it right there. Close the bedroom door.
There’s something about closing the bedroom door until it latches that toddlers seem to dislike. You don’t have to do it for long. Just a minute for the first offence, then bump it up by thirty seconds every time your toddler leaves their room that night.
As I said, this is a form of consequence, and if your child doesn’t like it, 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 will 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 need to hit the roof in order to get their way, and that’s going to make things significantly worse.
If your toddler sleeps with the door closed, you can try removing their bunny/blanket/comfort item 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 recognise the negative consequences of leaving their room and staying in bed unless they have an actual issue.
That covers the night, but what about the morning?
Toddler waking up too early?
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 they legitimately woke up and didn’t know if it was time to get out of bed.
If you have a few bucks, you can get an OK-To-Wake 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 $25 to $50. These sweet little gizmos shine a soft light that’s one colour through the night and another when it’s time to get Up. Stay away from any that shines blue light, as it simulates sunlight, stimulating cortisol production and making it tougher to get back to sleep.
Or, if you want to save your money, and your toddler knows their numbers, you can do what I did and 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 can 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 finding something that sticks, but consistency isn’t optional. You 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 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 realise you’re not giving in, you’ll be free to break out the good snacks and turn on HBO without fear of being discovered.
Now you've mastered bedtime, get some advice on how to extend your toddler's bedtime.
Richelle Franklin from Sleep Right Tonight is the Parents You've Got This Sleep Expert and presents at our Starting Solids and Infant Sleep Masterclass. Richelle uses proven, gentle methods of the Sleep Sense Program to teach your baby/toddler to self-settle and sleep through the night. Richelle is also a midwife with 16 years of experience.