Every night for months and months, my daughter would climb out of her big girl bed and toddle over to her father and me. We'd put her back, soothing her and begging for her to sleep. It was a nightmare. We didn't know how to keep a toddler in bed, and it was pretty stressful — until we figured it out.
A toddler creeping out of their bed at night is as inevitable as them picking their nose in public. It will happen. If your child is able, at some point they will end up terrifying you by standing silently at the foot of your bed until you jerk awake. But how do you keep this from becoming a habit? Not only is the Children of the Corn routine bad for your sleep, it's bad for theirs too.
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any one magical solution. While there are a ton of answers from experts online, there is no consensus. In fact, according to the "mom experts" at Childrens MD, who are also pediatricians with St. Louis Children’s Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, "There is no right answer, no one way, no trick that works for every child. And someone somewhere will accuse you of being a bad parent, no matter how you handle your sleep-avoiding toddler."
There are a few commonalities in the advice, though, and I will admit, not all of them worked for us. The first is all about prevention. Children, especially toddlers, need regularity and routine. The Cleveland Clinic notes that the first thing parents need to do is establish a bedtime ritual and honor it. Do the same thing every night, going into bedtime with the same expectations to set yourselves up for success. "Children with consistent bedtimes are more likely to get sufficient sleep," according to the Cleveland Clinic. They suggest having an hour set aside each night for a wind-down period where you do calm bedtime activities with your toddler to put them in the right frame of mind for sleep. Think about baths, stories, tooth brushing, and even meditation.
Susete Pinto, a pediatric sleep consultant, tells Romper that a part of this routine should include setting expectations for the night. She says that parents should "have a bedtime checklist posted and set expectations with toddlers." Reviewing the bedtime checklist together helps toddlers understand what your expectations are. The checklist can be as simple as a few pictures, she says. This wasn't an easy fit for my family, though I have friends for whom this worked really well. I have severe ADHD, so repeated small tasks like these aren't always manageable in the long run for my brain.
The next step is to say goodnight quickly and leave the room. Just like saying bye-bye at daycare, it's best to have a clean break so that your child isn't tempted to make you dawdle. Rip off the Band-Aid and pour yourself a glass of something soothing.
Here's the hard part: They will get up. They will keep getting up. When they do, you don't ask them why they are up and you don't cuddle and coddle them. You just turn their fuzzy pajama-bootied butts back around and silently walk them to their bed and plant them back in it. "It is important to be firm but not mean in your instructions to your child that they must stay in their bed," pediatrician Dr. Jay Lovenheim of Lovenheim Pediatrics tells Romper. He notes that just like the quick goodnight, it needs to be a little bit ruthless, with limited interaction (no conversation, back rubs, playing, or story-telling).
This, I can tell you from experience, is not the time to go soft. Your kid will cry, tug on your clothes, throw themselves down on the floor, and scream bloody murder. And you cannot react. I agree, this isn't for everyone. I, for one, absolutely sucked at it, but I was exhausted, so I had my husband do it. As a cop, he's pretty good at the stony face (all the while I was dying inside). Then, it's just a matter of lather, rinse, repeat. Because how to keep a toddler in bed is basically the same as how you get a toddler to do anything — you just have to keep doing it.