As a parent of a toddler, bedtime problems are a common occurrence and can be very frustrating. Problems can exist at any age, but are more common in the 3-6 year range. While there may be several underlying causes, here are a few tips for getting your toddler to go to and stay in bed.
Stay consistent with a good bedtime routine. Routines are important for any toddler as they grow and learn, and a bedtime routine can be one of the most crucial. It should be calming and consist of a few important things — personal hygiene (bath time, brushing teeth, etc.), interaction with a parent (reading, telling a story), and calming physical contact (snuggling, rocking, or hugging). Incorporate elements from these that work for you and your child. Try to avoid screen time (TV, iPad or cell phone) or high-energy playtime, as these can make it more difficult to fall asleep and can decrease the quality of sleep. One of my favorite ways of reinforcing this type of routine is by creating a picture schedule — draw out pictures (toothbrush, pajamas, book, etc.) of each of the activities so your toddler can follow along and feel in control of what’s coming next.
Create a comforting and relaxing environment. Toddlers are inherently going through a lot of changes, so even with the best bedtime routines it can be difficult for them to stay in bed. One way to help is by making the bed a comforting and calming place. You can do this through lighting with a favorite night light, an object that is comforting like a blanket or stuffed animal, or even soothing sounds. By doing this you are also creating an association of these items with the action of “going to bed”, which can improve the bedtime routine even more.
If your toddler gets out of bed or comes out of their room, firmly and calmly lead them back to bed. For some, simply returning them to bed multiple times may work. For others, letting them know that if they get up again, you will close the bedroom door can be effective. You can talk about what a big kid they are with their bed or how they’re just like every other family member being in their bed after bedtime. If you need to spend any time in the room to get them back to sleep, make it short (less than a minute) and boring. Say something such as, “everything’s okay, Daddy’s here, it’s time to go night night.” In future nights, consider making these visits even less interactive and keep at a farther distance, such as speaking quietly from the doorway rather than entering the room to interact.
Teach independence. With consistency and patience, toddlers can often get better at falling asleep independently and staying asleep longer. Start by altering the bedtime routine to end before they’re completely asleep so they learn to fall asleep on their own. If they wake up during the night, it’s okay to wait a few minutes to respond and see if they are able to fall back asleep alone. If your toddler is having a hard time sleeping through the night and is at risk for getting out of bed without your knowledge, ensure that their room is free from items that can cause falls or harm, and that they cannot go downstairs or into other areas of the house.
Hopefully, these tips can help if your toddler is having a hard time falling and staying asleep. It’ll take time and consistency, but it is well worth it in the long run as the sleep habits you’re teaching them now can lead to a lifetime of better sleep.
While many of these tips and tricks may help you troubleshoot problems that may exist, it doesn't mean you cannot make some exceptions every now and then. If my kids earn it, sometimes they get to watch a short Mickey Mouse clip with me before bed. If they climb into our bed at 4 a.m., sometimes I let them snuggle in the comfort under my arm for the rest of the night. What I feel is important is having a good healthy balance of these principles in your child's bedtime routine. If certain areas are causing too many problems, hopefully some of these tips can help get back on track. But please make sure to have fun, read, snuggle, play, and show them they will always have your love and protection because your children will not be this young forever and someday you'll miss it.
If these tips are not helping and you believe your toddler is in need of more help, talk with your child's primary care physician. He or she may refer you to our Sleep Center, which includes doctors who are board-certified sleep specialists, psychologists, and nurse practitioners who specialize in treating children with sleep problems.