What to do when your kid won’t stay in bed at night
Getting tucked into a big-kid bed is one thing. Actually staying in it? Something else entirely. “I have to go potty.” “I’m so thirsty!” “I have to tell you something important.” From jack-in the-box pop-ups to waking in the middle of the night desperate for your attention—or a spot next to you in your bed—all the back-and-forth trying to get a night crawler to stay in bed is exasperating and exhausting.
It’s tempting to give in so you can all JUST GET SOME SLEEP!
Even parents who never intended to co-sleep sometimes resort to it as the answer to bedtime struggles. But if cosleeping’s possible drawbacks don’t appeal to you—then what?
WHY they do it:
Young kids keep popping out of bed for reasons that are mostly developmentally normal (and sometimes of our own making):
A lack of good impulse control. Children younger than age 3 live in the immediate moment, with their own wants directing their decision-making. Limits? Rules? They’re better at Persistence, and will try to get their way over and over and over.
Brain changes. Between 17 and 22 months, toddlers hit a pretty major stage in their language acquisition, which can actually stimulate their brains while they’re sleeping in a way that wakes them up, says Meggan Hartman, a child-sleep consultant and parent coach in Asheville, North Carolina. They go from one-word to three-word sentences and learn about 10 new words a day—maybe not speaking them but learning them nonetheless. Much of the work, to retain and integrate new words into their growing vocabulary, is done while they’re sleeping. Sometimes, it just gets too stimulating and wakes them up.
“It’s like they had a cup of coffee,” Hartman says.
Wild imaginations. “Between the ages of 2.5 to 4 (though it can happen earlier) the development of the imagination really kicks in,” says Hartman. Just as your child’s conscious mind winds down at day’s end, his creative mind ramps up as he dreams. Nightmares and fears start to spike at this age too.
An uptick in trouble sleeping happens for similar reasons around first grade as children understand more of what they read and enjoy more complicated storylines, she adds. When the words come to life, imaginations rev…and disrupt sleep.
Being overtired—with scrambled hormones. Sometimes we miss the window for an easy bedtime, says pediatric nurse Kelly Weygandt, a certified child-sleep consultant in St. Louis and the director of research and development for the Family Sleep Institute. A child who has trouble settling down to sleep and seems “just not ready for sleep” may actually be overtired. That can lead to increases in cortisol and adrenaline, which cause a child to act antsy and have trouble winding back down. The blue light from devices used in the hours before bed can also disrupt circadian rhythms (the sleep/wake cycle) and interfere with the secretion of melatonin, a hormone associated with sleepiness.
Inconsistent routines (which make for inconsistent results). Veering away from a solid, consistent bedtime routine—even just for weekends or “special circumstances” like out-of-town company—can also disrupt and confuse.
Big life changes, like starting preschool or kindergarten, changes in a parent’s work schedule, a new sibling, or a move. Even if your child acts amenable and you think he’s taking a transition well, he may be working the changes out in his little head when he’s awake and asleep. He may want to draw you closer sometimes or act out to get your attention. Hartman calls this “their drive to make sure everything is OK.”
Consider starting bedtime earlier. If your child seems especially perky and hard to settle down, re-evaluate the hour you’ve chosen for bedtime. Many parents underestimate overtiredness. National Sleep Foundation guidelines recommend that 1- to 2-year-olds get 11 to 14 hours of sleep and 3- to 5-year-olds get 10 to 13 hours.
Make your bedtime routine super routine. A bath, putting on PJs, and reading a book not only help wind things down and guarantee a big dose of your attention; they also signal that This Is What Happens Before We Go to Sleep. Now add a final “night-night phrase” to signal the end of the routine, Weygandt suggests—something as simple but memorable as “Good night, sleep tight!” or “Nighty-night, see you in the morning!” Repeat your night-night phrase every time you want your child to sleep: at regular bedtimes, at naps, and when tucking back in after waking during the night.
Head off stall tactics and excuses. Make one last bathroom run part of the bedtime routine. Place a small cup of water near your child’s bed (with no refills allowed ’til morning). If she asks for something else, remind her: “We already finished Night-Night.” Nip last-minute messages with a firm “You can tell me in the morning.”
Keep the door open—literally. A closed door to keep the room quiet and dark is usually recommended for infants. Though you’d think that would help an older child settle down too, in reality that physical barrier to you can be too much to bear. “The open door is a symbolic link to their parents,” Hartman says. Although it may sound counterintuitive, keeping doors open can actually help keep some kids in their room. Sometimes a child just needs to know you’re available and accessible if she needs you. A nightlight can be similarly reassuring.
When your child gets out of bed, go robotic. Avoid sighing, scolding, or body language that reveals your irritation. Even negative attention is extra attention that will embolden a persistent kid. Instead, make a no-fuss return trip to bed. Keeping all talking to a bare minimum, simply walk your child back into her room and tuck her back in with your chosen night-night phrase.
And yeah, expect it to happen over and over and over. It may take dozens of return trips for a few nights, or more. But by sticking to it, experts say, parents can expect to see improvement in about a week or two.
Hard-part alert: Don’t relent. Giving in during this sleep training—to lie down with your child, to let him sleep with you, or to let him stay up—will undo the progress you’ve made, Weygandt cautions. It’s hard—at times you just want to surrender from sheer exhaustion. But here’s the catch: Your child will be frustrated by your mixed messages, thinking, Yesterday she said it was OK! But today she says it isn’t OK! His resulting confusion and insecurity winds up making it even harder to learn what you expect at bedtime. That’s why some kids cry even harder after you give in, Weygandt says!
Once you’ve established a solid routine, it will be less disruptive to make exceptions for bad dreams and thunderstorms.
“Repeat and repeat until you win the battle,” says Joan Becker Friedman, a certified child-sleep consultant and registered nurse in Milwaukee. “Some parents report doing this 100 times before their child finally gets the message. You have to win this battle. It will finally sink in if you’re firm and absolutely consistent in your response.”
Reward bed-staying. Some kids are motivated by sticker charts, adds Friedman. She suggests first talking about a few simple rules associated with sleeping in a big bed—things like: We put PJs on right after our bath, We close our eyes to sleep when we’re tucked in, We stay in bed all night, and We wait for a signal from the clock to get out of bed in the morning. “In the morning, give your child stickers and lots of praise for following specific rules,” she says. “Think of an incentive prize that your child can earn by following the sleep rules all week.”
In a pinch, try working up to independence gradually. Some kids (and some parents) respond better to an approach known as “camping out” or the “fading” method—and if it sounds onerous, at least it’s usually effective, Hartman says.
Start by going over the plan with your child: “You’re going to sleep in your own bed. But I’m going to be here to help you get used to it.”
Then implement the change over time. On the first night, scoot a chair next to your child’s bed or set up a mattress so you can be there as your child falls asleep (or through the night if you prefer, Hartman says). Each night, move your spot about a foot or so farther away. If your child gets up, tuck him right back in. Usually around night five to seven you’ll cross the threshold of your child’s doorway. Depending on the child, Hartman says, the process of easing your child into sleeping separately can take about a week or two.
But the time investment can be well worth it, Hartman says. Sleep resisters sometimes are kids who don’t do well with sudden change; they benefit when we help them anticipate a change and give them some time to accept it, she says.Confront nightmares and fears—instead of just dismissing them. Because scares can cause wake-ups that become bad habits, deal with them directly. Ask your child to draw a picture of what was scary in a bad dream and/or talk about it. Say a nightmare about a snake has your son fearing there’s one loose in his room. Have him draw the snake he “saw” and build a story around it, filling it with reassuring facts about snakes: What does this snake do? What does the snake eat? What’s its name? Where does it go at night? (Hint: It’s not a little kid’s bedroom.)
“We want to bring it out of the dream world and shine a light on it,” Hartman says.
Or try a confidence-builder added to the bedtime routine: sprinkling invisible “fairy dust,” saying goodnight to a dreamcatcher, or waving a special wand to ward off monsters. “It empowers a child—your child creates the solution,” she says.
Restful nights ahead
Ultimately we all have to do what feels right to us—by night as well as by day. But because sleep is so precious for kids and parents alike, it’s worth persisting ’til you hit on a solution that makes everybody in the household happy. And well-rested! With a little luck and a lot of consistency, those nighttime interruptions soon will be few and far between.
—Senior editor Juanita Covert is a mom of three (ages 6, 8, and 11) who works from her home in Traverse City, Michigan. She’s also a busy hockey mom, softball mom, and Girl Scout troop leader.