Waking up every hour or two to the sounds of a crying baby wasn’t just an inconvenience. It was absolutely exhausting. I was constantly irritable, completely unfocused, unable to keep track of anything, and, quite honestly, felt like I might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
So needless to say, when I finally started sleep training and my baby learned to sleep 10-12 hours a night without any help from me, and got into a predictable rhythm with naps, it felt like nothing short of a miracle.
And conversely, when my baby wasn’t so much of a baby anymore and had learned to walk and talk, and more importantly, to test some boundaries, and started leaving the bedroom in the night, I was apprehensive to say the least.
A toddler leaving their bedroom may sound harmless, but if it happens often enough, it can be every bit as hard on parents and children as constant night waking. And toddlers can be incredibly persistent when they’re trying to get their way.
The thing that makes this scenario trickier than sleep training a baby is that your little one, by this age, has probably learned a few negotiating tactics. I’m not saying this in a negative way, but toddlers quickly learn how to manipulate people. It’s not that they’re malicious or conniving, it’s just human nature. We test behaviors and actions to see if they get us what we’re after, and when we find something that works, we tend to use it repeatedly.
So if asking for a glass of water gets mom back into the room, or asking to use the bathroom helps to satisfy your curiosity about what’s going on outside of your room after hours, you’re likely to use the same approach every time. That can be a soothing fact to keep in your mind when you’re walking your child back to their room for the fifteenth time since you sat down to watch your favorite show or are trying to enjoy a couple of hours alone with your partner.
Now, bearing in mind that yelling is just going to upset everyone, and that giving in will just encourage more of the same behavior, how do we get a toddler to stay in their room without letting the situation escalate?
Consequences, mama. Consequences are the key.
I should start off here by saying that I think it’s only fair to always give one warning before implementing a consequence for unwanted behavior. If your child leaves their room, ask them why they’re not in bed. Assuming the answer isn’t because they’re not feeling well, (which can often be a ruse, but should always be at least addressed and checked out before calling it such) then you can calmly but firmly tell them that they’re not allowed out of their room until morning. Walk them back to bed, say goodnight, give them a quick smooch, and let them know that there will be a consequence if they leave their room again.
Hopefully, that does the trick. More than likely, especially if this is a behavior that’s been going on for a while already, it won’t.
When they show up in the living room again, saying that they forgot to tell you something, or that their water is too warm, or that they can’t find their stuffie (which is, of course, in their hand when they say this) it’s time to implement that consequence.
Now we get to the big question, right? What’s the consequence? I’ve had a lot of parents tell me, “I know I need to discipline him somehow, but I don’t want it to be anything that will upset him.”
I totally understand this line of thinking, but really, what is a consequence if it’s not something unpleasant? How is it ever going to dissuade unwanted behavior if it isn’t somehow disagreeable?
The simple answer is, it won’t. I had a friend once who used to punish her toddler by putting him in “Time-out” for five minutes. Time-out, of course, meant sitting on Mom’s lap while she rubbed his back and sang to him. I used to consider chucking a toy or two myself to see if it would get me a quick massage and a soothing rendition of my favorite Fleetwood Mac song.
The trick here is to find a balance between something that your child doesn’t mind and something that really throws them into a tailspin, because we don’t want to traumatize anyone here. We’re just looking for something unpleasant enough to dissuade the behavior.
Understanding that every child is different and that nothing works for everyone, I do have a simple trick that I’ve found to be incredibly effective in this situation, and it’s as simple as closing a door.
In fact, that’s the trick.
Yep, that’s it right there. Close the bedroom door.
There’s something about having the bedroom door closed all the way until it latches that toddlers really seem to dislike. You don’t have to do it for long. Just a minute for the first offence, then bump it up by thirty seconds or so every time your toddler leaves their room that night.
Like I said, this is a form of consequence and if your child doesn’t like it, well, that’s kind of the point, right? So if they cry a little, you’ll have to ride it out. If they try to open the door, you’re going to have to hold it closed. If they pitch a fit, let them, but don’t give in. If you do, all you’re teaching them is that they just need to hit the roof in order to get their way, and that’s going to make things significantly worse.
If your toddler already sleeps with the door closed, you can try taking away their lovey/stuffie/blanket on the same time pattern as you would with the door-closing technique. A minute on the first go-round, thirty seconds more if it happens again, and so on. Before too long, they should start to recognize the negative consequences of leaving their room, and they’ll stay in bed unless they have an actual issue.
That covers the night, but what about the morning? We’ve all gotten that surprise visit from our little ones at 5:15 AM, asking us if it’s morning yet, and you really can’t hold that against them. Chances are that they legitimately woke up and didn’t know if it was time to get out of bed or not.
If you have a few bucks to spare, you can get yourself an OK-To-Wake clock, or a similar one from Amazon. There were a couple of dozen on there the last time I checked and they range from about $25 to $50. These sweet little gizmos shine a soft light that’s one color through the night, and another when it’s time to get Up. Just stay away from any that shine blue light, as it simulates sunlight, which can stimulate cortisol production and make it tougher to get back to sleep.
Or, if you want to save your money, and your toddler knows their numbers, you can do what I did and just get a digital clock and put some tape over the minutes, leaving just the hour showing, and tell them it’s not time to get up until they see the “magic seven” on the clock. Don’t set the alarm though. If they’re able to sleep past seven o’clock, you don’t want them waking up with a jolt when the radio suddenly fires off.
These are just a couple of options and they may not work with every toddler. You may have to try out a few different approaches before you find something that sticks, but what isn’t optional is consistency. You absolutely have to stick to your guns once you’ve given the warning. Your toddler may not know how to tie their shoes yet, but they can spot an empty threat a mile away. They’re gifted like that, and they don’t mind systematically testing the boundaries to see if the rules are still in place night after night.
Be patient, be calm, but be firm and predictable. Once they realize that you’re not giving in, you’ll be free to break out the good snacks and turn on HBO without fear of being discovered.
Toddlers are fascinating creatures, aren’t they? Watching them develop into thinking, creative little people is such a fascinating time, and one that parents often wish would last a little longer.
Of course, they usually wish that AFTER baby has grown out of the toddler stage, because along with that creativity and new found intelligence, we usually see a lot of boundary-testing, which can be incredibly frustrating.
When I have my initial consultations with the parents of a toddler, there’s usually some kind of amusing story surrounding bedtime. They’ll tell me about how their little one gets three or four stories a night, sometimes five, and then they usually ask for a glass of milk that they’ll only drink a few sips of, then they want to say goodnight in a very specific, drawn-out way, and the parents will end up looking at each other wondering how on earth they got to this point.
And it always happens the same way... a little bit at a time.
Toddlers love to test boundaries, and they know that the one thing you want from them at bedtime is for them to go to sleep, so they’ll use that to their advantage. I know it sounds a little diabolical, but it’s their way of seeing where your boundaries lie and how much authority they actually have.
So one night they ask for a glass of milk, and the parents think, “What’s the harm?” The next night, they ask for a glass of milk and an extra story. A week later, they want a glass of milk, an extra story, and three hugs and two goodnight kisses. Little by little, these crazy bedtime routines get established, all according to what the toddler wants.
So there’s a simple, two step solution to this issue.
That’s it. It’s that simple. I won’t lie, sticking to the rules can be a challenge, because they’re going to ask, test and complain. But if you stick to your guns, they’ll understand sooner rather than later that the bedtime routine is not up for debate.
This benefits both of you, in spite of the fact that your little one might not agree. Toddlers take a great amount of comfort in knowing that you, the parent, are firmly in charge and are confident in your decisions. It gives them a sense of security. If you start allowing them to make the decisions, they actually start to feel like they’re in charge, and that feeling that Mom knows what she’s doing starts to fade.
Additionally, a predictable, repetitive bedtime routine is greatly conducive to a good night’s sleep. It signals the brain to start secreting melatonin and signals the body to start relaxing muscles in preparation for a restful, relaxing slumber.
And, finally, you’ll never have to explain to your friends how you have to have to make your little guy pancakes at ten at night in order for him to go to bed.
When parents ask me this, I know they’re looking for a quick answer.
“Three nights from now,” or “Six months old,” are the kind of responses you’re hoping for, and the kind I wish I could give you, but it’s not that simple.
The first thing I need you to understand is this...
Your baby will never sleep through the night.
That’s right I said it! They won’t sleep through the night when they’re babies, or when they’re toddlers, or when they’re teenagers, or when they’re grown-ups… because nobody ever does.
We sleep in cycles. These cycles vary from light sleep to deep sleep and back again. Sometimes, when we get into a light sleep stage of our cycle, something happens that wakes us up. It could be the dog growling, the spouse snoring, or a crazy dream where you think you’re falling! But whatever that thing is… it wakes us.
As adults, we have experienced this thousands of times, so we just shake it off and go back to sleep. Most of the time, the wake-up is so short that we don’t even remember it the next day.
But for babies who are used to being rocked, shushed, bounced, or nursed to sleep, waking up in the night requires external help to get back into another sleep cycle.
So that’s the reason why your baby is never going to sleep through the night, but then again, that’s not what you are really asking.
What you really want to know is, “When will my baby be able to get back to sleep on their own?”
Now THAT is a much easier question to answer. Quite simply, this will happen when they learn how!
When you teach your little one to go to sleep on their own, they’ll be able to utilize that skill multiple times a night, every night, for the rest of their lives.
Now, there’s more to it than just leaving your baby alone in their crib and letting them figure it out for themselves. Don’t get me wrong, that approach has worked for a lot of people, but it’s not one that everybody is comfortable using, and it’s not the most gentle or effective way of teaching your baby great sleep skills.
The traditional Cry-It-Out approach is a lot like leaving your child in front of a piano with some sheet music and saying, “Figure it out.” Eventually, they just might, and you might just have the Elton John of sleeping on your hands. But assuming your child isn’t gifted in the sleep department, (and I’m just assuming they’re not, since you’re reading this) they could probably benefit with some lessons.
And as with any skill that a child needs to learn, practice is essential, so let them give it a shot. There’s probably going to be a bit of crying, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go in and encourage, comfort and reassure them.
What you shouldn’t do, however, is sit down at the piano and play it for them. Obviously, that doesn’t teach them anything. So whatever it is that you’ve traditionally done to get your child to go to sleep in the evening, or in the middle of the night (whether it’s giving them a pacifier, rocking them back to sleep, nursing them, whatever) can be defined as a “sleep prop”. These “sleep props” are the equivalent of teaching your child how to play the piano by playing it for him.
They may get frustrated, they may get upset, but they’ll learn with a little time and practice.
So although I can’t give an exact date or age when your baby will go through the night without crying and demanding help to get back to sleep, I can tell you that it will be much, much sooner if you stop doing it for them.
As for teaching your little one to play piano, you’re on your own with that one.
“With all of the information that’s readily available online, and the resources you have at your disposal in the form of friends and family who have managed to get their kids to sleep, why would you want to invite a stranger into your home to get your child sleeping through the night?”
I don’t often hear this question phrased exactly that way, but I know it’s a concern that a lot of parents have when they’re thinking about getting some professional help with their little ones’ sleep habits.
And it’s a valid question! After all, your mother managed to get you to sleep at some point. Your friend might have four kids who are all champion sleepers, so she should have some answers for you, right?
Well, yes! At least they might. But then again, they might not.
Let me be the first to say, if you’ve got someone who can help you in this situation, I’m not the least bit offended if you want to ask them for help instead of calling a consultant. After all, we’re all trying to save our money where we can, so if you can remedy the problem without paying for it, I’m all for that option.
Most of the time though, my clients are parents who have already tried that route, and possibly four other routes, and found they weren’t successful, and there are dozens of reasons why that might happen.
The biggest reason why the solutions that work for one parent don’t work for another is simple: they’re not dealing with the same baby.
Some babies are heavily reliant on sleep props. Others can’t sleep in a room that’s too warm. Some may not be getting enough daytime sleep, and others might be overtired. This baby might have developed an association between feeding and falling asleep, whereas that one might be ready to drop their second daytime nap.
And, of course, it could be any combination of all of the above, or the many other sleep challenges that babies experience.
Adding to all of the other challenges is the fact that most solutions don’t work overnight. Parents might start on a solution, but abandon it before it takes effect because baby put up a little too much protest and mom thought, “Maybe this wasn’t the right method.”
In short, sleep is a complicated issue and there’s very rarely one single thing that can remedy the situation overnight.
A professional sleep consultant has the experience and training to recognize which problems result in specific symptoms, and can work with you to develop a personalized plan for your child that addresses those individual issues. They can also provide some much needed support when things don’t seem to be working, and give you the encouragement you need to follow through on that plan until it starts to work.
Consider the example of a personal trainer. You could just get some dumbbells and watch some YouTube videos in order to get in shape, so why pay someone to guide you along?
Well, because they’re able to give you solid advice based on education and experience, they can help to keep you motivated, and they know how to respond to the problems that might arise when it comes to your specific situation.
So when it comes to baby’s sleep, I hope for everyone to find success on their own, and with as few problems as possible. But if that doesn’t happen for you, a professional consultant has the answers and support you need.
My name is Ericka Cooley and I'm a mom of two young ones, Taylor and Matthew.