So you tucked your little nugget into bed a couple of hours ago. You’re drifting off to sleep yourself. And suddenly, here she comes, bouncing into your room.
We’ve all been there. And for some of us, it’s a nightly routine.
And every time, you wonder: why does my toddler keep getting out of bed in the middle of the night?
Relax. You’ve got this. The solution may not be easy, but it’s surprisingly simple. In this article, I’ll show you the approach I’ve used to help dozens of families teach their toddlers to stay in bed all night long.
Why your kid won’t stay in bed
First, ask why your toddler is getting out of bed. It may be a simple fix. Your child may be getting up because he needs to go to the bathroom or is afraid of a spider he saw in his bedroom. In situations like these, your little one needs your help so that he can quickly get back to sleep.
And it goes without saying: take care of your little one’s basic needs before he goes to bed. If you put him to bed hungry or without having a chance to use the bathroom, you might as well schedule in a nighttime visit.
Separation anxiety: a common cause
But if you’re reading this, you probably have a stickier situation on your hands. If your kid is getting up night after night, you might be dealing with separation anxiety.
It’s totally normal for toddlers to be anxious you leave them for the night. Separation anxiety often starts to appear around eight months of age and typically peaks between 14 and 18 months. These behaviors are developmentally normal, and typically fade as the child gets older.
Understanding separation anxiety is the key to dealing with it successfully. Let’s take a closer look.
How to deal with separation anxiety
Try to see things the way your toddler does. He hasn’t developed the understanding of time that you and I have. When you leave him, he has no idea whether it’s just for a few minutes… or forever. He doesn’t know when you’re coming back, and he wants to keep you close by.
To ease your child’s fears about separation, one of the most effective strategies is to create a strong nighttime routine. A consistent ritual will help your child learn that bedtime is nothing to be afraid of… and as soon as he wakes up, you’ll be together again.
To develop a bedtime routine that works for you, focus on these key points.
Make bedtime the same time, every time. Setting a consistent bedtime helps your little one know that sleep is coming, so he can get in the habit of winding down on his own.
Start early. Get started about an hour before bedtime. Allowing plenty of time for your evening allows your little one to get settled and ready to sleep.
Choose calming activities. There are lots of options for your evening routine: a warm bath, reading a story together, singing some quiet lullabies. Choose activities that help your child get settled. And stay consistent: your routine will be easier when it’s more predictable.
Avoid stimulation. Keep the lights low and skip screen time. Bright light prevents the release of melatonin, an essential hormone that encourages sleep.
Let’s be real: a strong nighttime routine is just the foundation. If your child has only just started getting out of bed, it can make the difference. But if you’ve had a nighttime visitor on your hands for weeks or months, you’ll need a different approach.
Above all, be consistent
The truth is, there’s a simple solution when your kid keeps getting out of bed. But it may not be easy.
First, be clear with your child about the rules. Becky Mansfield at Your Modern Family shares a great example of how to communicate your expectations about staying in bed.
The second that I saw her climbing out of her bed, I ran in and said “No, Ma’am. Back into bed, please… If you need Mommy, you say ‘MOMMY!’ and I will come in. You do not get out of your bed. I will be scared if I know that you aren’t safe in your bed. Do you understand?”
Just laying down your rules clearly can make a big difference. But let’s be honest. Your toddler is growing up. She’s moving around on her own now. If she really wants to, she will get up and come find you. Your job is to help her learn to stay in her bed.
What to do when you get a nighttime visit
The most effective strategy is super simple. Every time she gets up, walk your child back to her room and put her back to bed.
If your child keeps getting out of bed, she’s getting something out of it. Being close to you. Staying up a little bit later. Feeling comforted when she’s alone.
To break the cycle of nighttime visits, the crucial thing to remember is to not do anything that reinforces the behavior. Stay away from activities that give your child positive attention, like singing, reading a story, or having a conversation with your child. Positive attention can reinforce the behavior you want to extinguish.
Instead, be booooorrrrrrrrring. As boring as possible. Give reassurance with a minimum of attention.
When she comes to you at night, simply talk with her for a minute, then walk her back to her room and put her back to bed. Keep it simple. “At night, I expect you to sleep in your own bed. You’ll be safe here. I love you. See you in the morning.”
And no matter how annoyed or frustrated you may be, hold back from getting angry or upset. Giving negative attention to your child is still giving attention — and it can keep the cycle of nighttime visits going. Stay calm, and help your child do it right.
Recognize your kid when he gets it right
When your toddler does stay in bed through the night, providing a reward can be especially effective.
Recognize your little one at the first opportunity. Breakfast is the perfect time to celebrate your little one for a job well done. Try small rewards like a special breakfast, stickers, or M&Ms. If your little peanut has been getting up on the regular, use a sticker chart to track her progress.
It may take time. But sooner than you think, your kid will be staying in bed all night.
When the time is right, you can reward her for her progress by telling her you’ll leave the door open at night… if she stays in bed. And as she gets older, you can allow her to get up one time each night for a bathroom visit.
If you have a regular nighttime visitor, breaking the cycle isn’t complicated. But it takes willpower. And that’s totally natural. After all, breaking a bad habit is always harder than stopping one from forming to begin with.
You might have to make many midnight trips with your toddler back to her room. But when you get back to sleeping through the night, the rewards will be so worth it.
Got more questions? I’m here for you. I’ve helped hundreds of families get the great night’s sleep they deserve — and I can help yours, too. Check out my sleep packages to learn more!