You probably did not get much sleep for the first 18 months of your baby’s life. While you will hopefully be a little more well-rested through the toddler years, you aren’t totally out of the woods yet. You’ve dealt with frequent newborn feedings and various sleep regressions, but in the toddler years, you will likely face a new challenge. Many parents find that at some point suddenly their toddler won’t stay in bed.
With the help of some sleep experts, we have gathered the 6 best tips to help overcome toddler sleep regression.
6 Strategies to Use When Your Toddler Won’t Stay in Bed
If you’ve transitioned a toddler from a crib to a big kid bed, then you know that lots of fun stuff comes with that transition. New sheets! New bed! Not to mention the fact that it’s a classic “big kid” milestone.
But here’s what they don’t tell you about that big kid bed: your big kid can climb right out. And that can make for a whole new set of bedtime problems – namely, what we call The Jack-in-the-Box Syndrome (aka your toddler won’t stay in bed).
So how can you help your jack-in-the-box toddler actually stay put at bedtime? Try these 6 strategies tonight!
1. Assess the Schedule
Sometimes, toddlers hop out of bed every 10 seconds simply because they’re not tired. So take a look at your toddler’s schedule – is bedtime too early? If your toddler still takes an afternoon nap, then bedtime shouldn’t be happening before 7 or 8 p.m. And speaking of naps – how close is that nap to bedtime? Your toddler needs at least 5 hours of wake time between the end of the afternoon nap and bedtime.
However, the reverse is also true – sometimes, toddlers are sleepless at night because they’re actually overtired. If your toddler is done napping, or is in the midst of a nap transition, from one nap to none, you’ll need to do an earlier bedtime – aim for 7 p.m. or so.
2. Institute a strong bedtime routine
Toddlers thrive on routine – particularly sleep routines. A strong, consistent bedtime routine will do wonders for helping your toddler understand that it’s time to settle in and go to sleep. Be sure that your routine isn’t too long (15-30 minutes is perfectly sufficient).
Also, make sure that your routine is, you know, a routine! You need to consistently do the same thing each night in order for it to become routine for your toddler. Read more about my son’s routine below!
3. Try a sticker chart
It’s incredible what a toddler will do for a sticker! If bedtime drama is an issue in your home, try a sticker chart. Maybe your toddler gets to put a sticker on the chart before bed if she is cooperative during the bedtime routine, and then another sticker on the chart before breakfast if she stays in bed all night long. Find a system that works well for you!
You can get some really cute sleep stickers for pretty cheap. Grab yours here!
4. Consider using the door as an immediate consequence
Sometimes, your toddler’s jack-in-the-box behavior will be due to real anxiety or perhaps a nightmare; in those cases, you’ll obviously want to comfort your toddler and help him feel safe.
However, more often, repeated jack-in-the-box behavior is more of a discipline issue. For this reason, some families find it helpful to respond with consequences. Remember, to be effective, the consequences of your toddler’s behavior need to be immediate – threatening ‘no TV tomorrow’ after your toddler gets out of bed for the fifteenth time isn’t effective, since the consequence is delayed.
Instead, some parents use the bedroom door as a sort of consequence – mom or dad may leave the bedroom door open 90 degrees, on the condition that their toddler stays in bed.
When the toddler gets up, the bedroom door closes to 45 degrees. If the toddler gets up again, the bedroom door is closed all the way for 1 or 2 minutes, at which point the whole process starts all over again.
Note that this tip isn’t for everyone; some parents feel this is too harsh, and not all toddlers respond well. Use your judgment in determining if this would work for your toddler.
5. Employ the Silent Return to Bed
Even if you tweak your toddler’s schedule, implement a great bedtime routine, and use stickers to encourage your toddler who won’t stay in bed… you will no doubt have some jack-in-the-box moments here and there.
This is just to be expected. Toddlers love to test boundaries, after all. In this case, we recommend that you try the ‘Silent Return to Bed’. That is, when your toddler wanders out of his room, silently walk him back, tuck him in, and leave. You want these interactions to be as boring as possible – no threatening, no bargaining, no discussing.
This will help discourage your toddler from repeated attempts to engage with you by getting out of bed. We find that if parents are consistent in doing this, it can significantly reduce jack-in-the-box behavior relatively quickly.
Finally, keep in mind that jack-in-the-box behavior can be a sign of a larger sleep problem. If your toddler won’t stay in bed night after night, wakes up multiple times per night, doesn’t nap well, and is up at the crack of dawn, you most likely need to help your toddler learn to fall asleep (and stay asleep) independently.
6. Technology to the Rescue
The OK to Wake! Children’s Alarm Clock and Nightlight is super popular with our readers because it is a fun way to teach toddlers when it is time to wake up. The nightlight on the alarm clock turns from yellow to green so that your little one has a clear signal of when they are allowed to get up.
This alarm clock worked so well for my youngest who was also my most stubborn. If mom or dad told her it was still bedtime, she refused to go back to bed, but if the alarm clock said it was still bedtime she stayed right in bed.
Creating a Routine
As I mentioned above, creating a routine can help tremendously in making bedtime smoother and setting your child up for success to stay in bed through the night. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it’s just helpful for toddlers to have a predictable routine. This step is SO important it needed a little further explanation.
This is what our routine looks like! Every night, right when things start to wind down, my little guy knows the drill. We head to his room and he dashes over to grab his go-to book — yeah, the same one we’ve probably read a gazillion times. No matter how often we read it, he’s all in, eyes wide, hanging on every word. It’s like our own little world for a minute.
Once we’re done, he gives me that “you know what’s next” look. And yeah, I break into those same old lullabies I’ve been singing since forever. It’s kinda our thing. He starts getting all drowsy, and before you know it, he’s out cold.
It’s wild how this routine, from way back when he was just a baby, still does the trick every time. It’s our tried-and-true, can’t-miss bedtime jam.
Getting Deep – The Reasons Your Toddler Might Be Struggling to Stay in Bed
For some families, jack-in-the-box behavior is a short-lived phenomenon. Other parents, however, spend months – even years! – dealing with a jack-in-the-box child.
So, why do our little ones spring out of bed like tiny wind-up toys? And most importantly, what can we parents do to keep them firmly tucked in bed?
If you think about it, the jack-in-the-box “dance” that many parents and toddlers/preschoolers do makes perfect sense, from a child’s perspective. For your toddler, bedtime is relatively dull. They know that Mom and Dad are no doubt partying hard in the living room – so of course, they want to join in!
And parents often unwittingly encourage jack-in-the-box behavior by their responses to the behavior. If your toddler gets another story, or an extra bedtime snuggle, or even a little bit of extra attention, every time he gets up, then he has the incentive to keep doing it.
Of course, we have to remember that child development plays into this, too. Many toddlers go through a few bouts of separation anxiety, namely during the 18-month sleep regression and the 2-year sleep regression. Some toddlers also struggle mightily with nightmares and night terrors
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About the Author
This article was written in collaboration with Nicole Johnson. A mama of two wonderful boys and owner of The Baby Sleep Site. When her eldest son was born, he had a lot of sleep problems. She got busy and thoroughly researched literature and scientific reports until she became an expert in sleep methods, scheduling routines, baby developmental needs, and more. She overcame her son’s sleeping issues in a way that matched her own parenting style, and knew it was her mission to help other tired parents “find their child’s sleep”.
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