Middle of the Night Toddler Visits - Support your Toddler to Sleep in their Room All...Night...Long
I often hear from tired parents who are fed up with their toddler climbing into their bed at some point every night. It’s understandable that parents expect sleep to be under control by toddlerhood. Sure, the newborn phase can be hard and the first year is full of development and changes with sleep. But we expect things in the sleep department to be under control as our children get a little older. Often it starts by the toddler coming into the parents bed here and there and in an effort to just get everyone some sleep and less disturbance at night, the parents let their toddler snuggle. Now, if this is what you’re doing and it’s not causing you stress and you can all get the sleep you need, then there’s no need to change anything. But often, it starts to not work and it becomes a habit. You aren’t getting the rest you need because of a wiggling starfish kicking you in the face, pulling your hair, elbowing you in the back… you know the drill. It’s just not working any longer.
Please know that there are some strategies you can use to support your toddler to sleep in his/her room through the night. Consistency is of key importance.
Before we get into the strategies, there are a few things that can help to reinforce healthy sleeping habits for toddlers early on.
Transitioning to a big kid bed at the right time. A great age for this transition is around 3 years of age when your toddler can understand rules and expectations. If we transition a child to a toddler bed too early, there can be more likelihood that issues arise.
Before transitioning to a big kid bed we want to make sure that our toddlers are already sleeping well and through the night. Transiting to a toddler bed likely won’t solve existing sleep issues. I suggest working through those challenges in advance - partnering with a sleep consultant can provide you with the support you need. As part of this, we want our toddler to be able to fall asleep independently at bedtime or at least be comfortable with mommy/daddy leaving the room and know that they can fall asleep on their own. This is a big one and can really help to prevent middle of the night visitors if your toddler knows how to fall asleep and get back to sleep on their own.
Using a physical boundary. I do encourage parents to use a baby gate at their toddlers door after transitioning to a toddler bed. This doesn’t have to be permanent but really helps to provide a physical boundary to the room and reinforce where they are expected to stay and sleep until the morning.
Whether or not the transition to a toddler bed initially went well, you now have a toddler climbing into your bed every night. Let me talk through some strategies that can help your toddler to sleep in their own bed… for the whole night.
1. Early Bedtime
Children get their deepest most restorative sleep in the first half of the night. Having a later bedtime doesn’t shift when they get this deep sleep, they just miss out on some of it. I often hear of toddlers with bedtimes well past 8p. Toddlers may be hyperactive and excitable in the evening, often bedtime battles are at play and it’s just a big ordeal to actually have them in their bed and asleep. Hyperactivity in the evening is a strong sign of overtiredness. And when our children are overtired, it’s harder for them to fall asleep and get back to sleep whenever they wake. So when your toddler is waking in the middle of the night, they may be finding it hard to get back to sleep which is why they are coming to you.
I encourage you to get to a stage where bedtime is consistently between 6:30-7:30p - no later than 7:30p. Aim for earlier (6:30-7p), particularly if your toddler is no longer napping. And when I say bedtime, that’s when your toddler is in their bed and you say goodnight. You can gradually shift bedtime earlier by 15/20 mins over the course of a week. But trust me on this, it will most likely help not hurt your toddler’s sleep.
2. Bedtime pass
It’s very common to hear of parents frustrated with the many many requests they get from their toddler at bedtime - one more hug, another book or song, they have to go potty, needing one last sip of water, etc. Toddlers can get very creative too!
A strategy to help with this behavior is the ‘bedtime pass.’ Before you start with the bedtime pass, make sure that you talk to your toddler in advance about the rules of the “bedtime pass” so that they understand. We don’t want to spring something new on our toddler, especially at bedtime. Here’s what you’ll do:
Create a physical bedtime “pass” - be creative, feel free to incorporate elements that make it personal to your child (favorite color, animal, etc.) and even have your toddler help to decorate it. This helps to make them feel connected to it.
Give your child the opportunity to use the bedtime “pass” at one point during your bedtime routine - they would need to physically give you the pass and then it has been “used” for that night.. Once you have the pass, remind your toddler that it’s time to go to sleep and you won’t come back in for the rest of the evening.
If your toddler leaves the room you will return them to their bed quietly with minimal interaction - we don’t want to give them enough attention or comfort (i.e. giving a kiss, tucking in) that it will tempt them to leave the room again. Repeat walking them back to their bed silently until they stop leaving and fall asleep.
If your toddler keeps the pass in their room through the night, you can incorporate that into some sort of reward chart (i.e. get a sticker each morning that they keep the pass with them for the whole night).
3. Silent Return
Silent return is what you will start to do when your toddler comes into your bed in the middle of the night. This process requires consistency and may take a couple weeks to reinforce as toddlers can be persistent. Here’s the approach:
Anytime your toddler comes into your room, you will silently walk him/her back into his/her room and then leave.
It’s important that you keep interactions very limited - no talking, kisses, tucking in, etc. We don’t want to have anything that will tempt your toddler to continue.
Any subsequent time they leave their room, you will continue to silently walk them back to their room and then leave.
Before doing this, we want to set the stage and make sure your child is aware of what will be changing. To do this, I suggest having a short family meeting to talk about the importance of sleep, what changes your toddler can expect and why it’s important. I also want to set very clear expectations that the first couple of nights, you may be walking your toddler back many many times. The key to this is absolute consistency, remaining calm and making sure you’re not interacting with your toddler in any way that will entice them to continue the behavior.
4. Personalized story book
This can be a really lovely and creative way to reinforce the message about sleep to your toddler. You would create a simple story book with pictures/photos of your toddler that tell the story of how they sleep through the night in their bedroom. This can have very basic drawings, but be as creative as you would like. This is a special way to put your child at the center of the story and to create something tangible that you can read together. It should be a nice tool that helps your child to visualize how they will sleep (and know that they can do this).