So, How Do Other Parents Get Their Toddler to Stay in Bed?
If you were to ask parents which times of their days they find to be the most stressful with a toddler at home, chances are bedtime would be one of them. Trying to get a little one to settle in at bedtime can be a real struggle, especially for families with toddlers who won’t sleep or toddlers who won’t stay in bed after they’ve been tucked in.
Unfortunately, but reassuringly if you’ve felt like you were the only parent struggling with this, it’s a common problem, which means plenty of parents want to know how to get toddlers to stay in bed at night.
Why Toddlers Won’t Stay in Bed
“It’s hard for toddlers to stay in bed because nature didn’t design humans to sleep alone, away from their tribe,” says Bethany Cook, PsyD, MT-BC, a licensed clinical psychologist, author of “For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting,” and mom of two.
“It’s literally in our DNA to be social, together, connected, and close, which brings feelings of comfort, security, acceptance, and love,” she tells POPSUGAR. And since toddlerhood is a time of dramatic mental, physical, and emotional change, it’s understandable why they might need some extra love and cuddles from their parents – even around bedtime, when they should be snoozing.
The toddler age range is “a roller coaster of an age range, and they are going through lots of natural adjustment and change during this time, including trying to become more autonomous and ‘in charge’ of themselves and their activities,” says Christina Johns, MD, MEd, FAAP, a pediatric emergency doctor and senior medical advisor at PM Pediatric Care.
“As they get older and more cognizant of your activity, they might start feeling separation anxiety and simply want to hang out with you more, causing them to wander over after bedtime,” she tells POPSUGAR.
Those are only a few reasons a toddler may struggle to stay in bed. Other examples may include overstimulation, sugar intake, or screen overload, according to Dr. Johns. Or a toddler might be worried they’ll be left out of the fun if they’re the only one asleep. It could also be fear or anxiety, being physically uncomfortable, or not having spent a lot of quality or connected care with their parent, Dr. Cook notes.
That said, getting enough quality sleep is essential to a toddler’s overall health, and when the bedtime routine drags on for hours, it’s not helpful for the kiddos or parents.
“Toddlers need a total of about 10 to 14 hours of sleep. This includes both nighttime and naps,” Dr. Johns shares. “A toddler that isn’t getting enough sleep might be moody, irritable, or overly emotional. They may also be reluctant to get out of bed in the morning, have trouble paying attention, and have less energy throughout the day.”
So, we know it’s important for our toddler’s overall health to get enough sleep. Now, how do we get them to stay in bed and stop resisting sleep? Here are some tried-and-true tips from medical experts and parents.
How to Get a Toddler to Stay in Bed
Tire Them Out
You’ve heard this one before as a tip for toddlers who won’t sleep. But it’s useful for toddlers who won’t stay put at night, too. Toddlers are full of energy, and if they have too much left over at the end of the night, that could contribute to the issue of them not staying in bed. “Try to arrange the day so your toddler is sufficiently tired by the end,” Dr. Johns suggests.
That might mean loading them up with toddler activities earlier in the day, but that’s not the only strategy, Dr. Johns adds: “This might mean increasing the amount of physical activity, and/or limiting screen time or pushing back bedtime.” It also could mean skipping a nap. If your toddler is still snoozing once or twice a day but is staying up late into the night, experiment with cutting a nap and see if that helps them conk out and stay put at bedtime. “Some kids will naturally continue napping once or twice during the day, while others will transition to exclusive night-sleeping more rapidly,” Dr. Johns says.
Do the Same Things Before Bed
According to Dr. Cook, having a simple and consistent routine for bed is one of the best tools a parent can use for a toddler who won’t stay in bed. “If you don’t have one, get your kid involved in creating the routine,” she suggests. “It’s a natural and calming way to alert the brain and body to the fact that sleep is coming.”
“Sleep hygiene” is one of those terms, like “meditation,” that sounds more daunting than it is. These tips can help you create a bedtime routine perfect for your family, without much extra work on your part. It could be as simple as picking up the same few bedtime stories night after night.
Decide Where They Sleep
If your toddler always ends up in your bed before they fall asleep and you’re OK with that, it’s fine to let them sleep there. “This is developmental, and soon they’ll want their own bed. But for now, they want to be near you,” Dr. Cook says.
Of course, if this is something you’re not able to do, that’s OK, too. Instead of having them in your room, you can sit with them in theirs until they get drowsy, or promise to check in during the night for extra comfort.
But if you’re encouraging your toddler to sleep in their own bed, it’s crucial to be consistent about returning them to their bedroom when they get up. “When they do wander out, return them to bed quickly and without making a big deal out of it,” Dr. Johns says. This will reinforce your routine with your toddler, leading to less friction night after night.
Consider Your Reaction
Kids “pick up on energy way more than they do words or actions,” Dr. Cook points out. So regardless of your words, toddlers can perceive when you’re irritated and frustrated, and the stress might make them more wound up and comfort-seeking, she says. So if they’re fighting sleep or having a hard time staying down at night, try to react neutrally.
That doesn’t mean you can’t impose consequences on the behavior – just do so calmly and consistently. Like Dr. Johns, Dr. Cook says simply returning your child to bed with a low-key reminder that it’s past bedtime is enough.
But parents are humans, too. So if you ever do lose your temper after the millionth time you find your little one wandering around the house after bedtime, know that you’re not alone. Aim to regain your cool quickly, apologize – and make sure to lavish on the praise when your little one starts to make progress. “You must match the level of energy and expression of emotion on both ends,” Dr. Cook says.
Speak to the Pros
All that said, if your attempts to encourage your toddler to stay in bed haven’t worked and they’re losing a lot of sleep because of it, Dr. Cook suggests checking in with your child’s pediatrician or therapist.
“I would suggest seeing an MD to rule out organic issues (upset tummy), [and/or] a therapist to help identify any unknown experiences causing your toddler stress, and a sleep specialist to look at length and quality of sleep,” Dr. Cook says. Bringing in some reinforcements can make a world of difference.