How to Keep Your Toddler In Bed and Sleeping Until a Reasonable Hour
Contributor, Nicole Johnson, is a married mother of two wonderful boys and owner of The Baby Sleep Site. When her eldest son was born, he had a lot of sleep problems – he would wake every one or two hours, all night long! 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”.
Many of us assume that sleep problems will disappear (or at least get better) once our babies grow into toddlers. But in my almost 10 years of working with families around the world, I’ve learned that most babies’ sleep problems persist into toddlerhood. In fact, in some cases, they get worse! Your toddler is more mobile and more vocal than he was as a baby, and that can create new sleep challenges.
Two toddler sleep problems in particular that I see parents struggle with are “jack-in-the-box” bedtime behavior (i.e. when a toddler keeps popping up out of bed after bedtime) and early waking.
Keep reading for my top tips to combat and cure these two common toddler sleep problems!
How To Keep Your Toddler In Bed and Sleeping Until a Reasonable Hour
To begin, assess the schedule: it may be that your toddler is getting out of bed and waking early because of a schedule problem. 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. If your toddler is done napping, or is in the midst of a nap transition, then you’ll need to do an earlier bedtime – aim for 7 p.m. or so.
Once you’ve done this, follow these 5 steps to ward off “jack-in-the-box” and early rising behaviors:
1. Institute a strong bedtime routine: 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) and that it’s not too stimulating (no tickle-fights before bed!).
2. Try a sticker chart: Allow your toddler 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 until your appointed wake-up time.
3. Consider using the door as an immediate consequence: If you have ruled out schedule problems and discomfort or nightmares, then repeated jack-in-the-box behavior at night and early in the morning is usually a discipline issue. For this reason, some families find it helpful to respond with consequences. Some parents use the bedroom door as a sort of consequence – mom or dad may leave the bedroom door open on the condition that their toddler stays in bed, but then close it by degrees every time the toddler gets up until you close it for 1-2 minutes and then let her try 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.)
4. Employ the Silent Return to Bed: 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 repeat 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.
5. Treat any early waking as nighttime waking: This is key to fixing early rising. Treat a pre-dawn wake-up call as a night waking, and simply escort your child back to bed. Do the silent return to bed, just as you would at night. This can be exhausting, but if you do it faithfully for about a week, this problem should resolve itself.
One last recommendation: keep in mind that jack-in-the-box behavior and early rising can be a signs of a larger sleep problem. If your toddler pops out of bed constantly, wakes up multiple times per night, doesn’t nap well, and is up before dawn, you most likely need to help your toddler learn to fall asleep (and stay asleep) independently. And I can help with that! I encourage you to download my free e-Book, Toddler Sleep Secrets. It’s 100% free (really!) and available to download immediately, and it includes a number of helpful tips designed to get your toddler sleeping through the night and napping like a champ.