How to stop the night-time wandering

For many parents, getting their little one to sleep through the night is a life-changing event. I know it certainly was for me and my husband.

Waking up multiple times a night to the sounds of a crying baby wasn’t just an inconvenience. It was exhausting. I was a zombie, barely able to function, and at times felt like I was taking a risk just looking after both my daughters after particularly bad nights.

So once our youngest finally discovered the delights of sleep (that the rest of us had been craving), it was nothing short of life changing.

Of course, they don’t stay babies in cots for long (oh how I wish they did).  Just as you think you’re in a groove, then they decide they’re going to start trying to escape from the safe confines of their room (a serious case of Fear Of Missing Out!) and test a few boundaries along the way.

For us, the dilemma was two-fold. Not only had AJ had learnt to shimmy up the cot side and slide out of the cot, even though her sleeping bag was on inside out and back to front (which was a great tip from my sister in law that delayed the inevitable for a few weeks at least), she could then take a wee wander around while I was oblivious!  Needless to say, the safety implications are pretty huge when they realise they can climb (in the sleeping bag, no less!). So we realised she would be in a ‘big girl bed’ a lot sooner than planned. We had hoped we would stretch it out until she was closer to 3 years old, but she obviously had other ideas!

Escape artists

So, AJ’s in a bed with all the wriggle room and ease of access associated with it…GREAT!…not!  A little person leaving their bedroom seems pretty innocuous, but if it happens often enough, it can be every bit as hard on parents and children as constant night waking. And we all know how persistent  toddlers can be!

Firstly, we realised that although her room was safe, was it really safe enough for her if she decided to have a cheeky little wander while we were asleep?  Well, no, not really! So not only were we hurriedly putting together a new bed, we also had to make sure there was nothing she could pull on herself or wires or strings she could get caught up in (that usually we would have been in the room to warn her against).  That then extended to any other rooms she might decide to investigate too. Marvellous…

Secondly, what made this even harder was the fact that by two and a half she had learnt a few ‘negotiating tactics’ (when I say a few, I mean the UN would be proud). 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 all test behaviours 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, and toddlers are no different.

So if jumping out of bed and asking for a glass of water gets Mumsy back into the room, or saying she needs a wee helps to satisfy her curiosity about what’s going on in the rest of the house while she’s supposed to be sleeping, she’s going to keep using the same approach every time. Let’s face it, it’s pretty clever really, although it can be hard to remember that when you’re walking them back for what seems like the hundredth time since you started trying to enjoy a quiet dinner with your other half!

Is staying in bed so hard?

Shouting and screaming (from you or your little one) is just going to exacerbate the situation and is a sure fire way for tempers to flare higher than they usually would.  Yes, easy for me to say sat at my laptop in the middle of the day! So, I hear you ask, how can you get your toddler to stay in their room without falling out with each other?

Consistency and (when required) consequences, my friend. These are key.

If you’ve read any of my other blogs, you may notice that consistency is a regular theme.  After all, we all cope better if we know what to expect, and little ones are no different. In fact they thrive on it.

Consequences can be tricky.  As tempting as it might be to jump straight to giving them a consequence (especially after a hard day), it’s only fair to at least give them one chance to explain themselves if they come a-wanderin’.  Obviously, if the answer is that they don’t feel well (and they genuinely aren’t), deal with it however you usually would. If however it’s just because they thought they heard you calling their name or their pillow is the wrong shape (yes, I’ve had both of those!), then calmly just walk them back to bed, explain it’s time to be asleep, a quick kiss, say goodnight and let them know that if they get up again then there will be a consequence and you leave the room.  

Simple, right?  For some children, this is all it takes!  No, really! Although, the fact you’re reading this, makes me think your little bundle of joy may not be quite that amenable? Nope, mine wasn’t either!  But, regardless of their personality type, be consistent in giving them this one chance (or two or however many you’re prepared to give each and every single night as long as it’s always going to be the same).

Maybe the idea of consequences doesn’t sit right with you, or, you simply think your little one is just too small to get it?  And that’s ok. Then I’d suggest continuing to do the above (for as long as it takes) but stay silent when you do. There’s a lot less gratification for them if they’re not getting any verbal interaction, so eventually they’ll get bored.

I’ll admit, AJ never actually made it downstairs to me after bedtime as we still have stair gates up from when they were weeny because I’m pretty sure Lulu, her eldest sister, is going to be a sleepwalker like I was.  It did however mean that when she wanted to tell me that all important nugget of information (that really wasn’t as groundbreaking as she’d made out but was obviously VERY important to her), or ask to go to the toilet or for a cup of water, she’d just stand at the top of the stairs and shout LOUDLY!  I’d calmly return her back to her bed, not saying anything, but, sometimes that just doesn’t wash. Then what?

So here comes the consequences!  I get it, no-one wants to make the situation worse, but tempers are likely to be fraying after the trillionth time of walking them calmly back to their room, and getting cross with them isn’t going to help anyone. So before you blow a gasket what consequence can you use?  

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 traumatise anyone here. We’re just looking for something unpleasant enough to dissuade the behaviour.

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 is the trick.

Simple as that. 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 (and to be fair, we’d probably be the same, wouldn’t we?). You don’t have to do it for long. Just a minute the first time, then up it 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, isn’t it? I’m not going to lie, they may get a little upset.  If that’s the case, there’s nothing wrong with a very quick kiss or brief cuddle once you open the door again if that makes them (and you!) feel better, but keep it brief!  If they’re getting up anyway because they want your attention, then this is just fuelling it. If they try to open the door, you’re going to have to hold it closed. If they throw a tantrum, you’re going to have to let them as long as they’re safe – don’t give in. If you do, all you’re teaching them is that they just have to go ballistic in order to get their way, and that’s going to make things significantly worse.

Or you could try…

What if your little one already sleep with the door closed or the idea doesn’t inspire you?  Well, you can try taking away their lovey/cuddly toy/blanket etc using the same principle 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 recognise the negative consequences of leaving their room, and they’ll stay in bed unless they have an actual issue.

So what’s classed as an actual issue?  Well. although asking for a glass of water or needing the toilet are probably up there as top procrastinations, sometimes, that really is what they need.  Obviously, if they ask for a glass of water first, then a while later say they need the loo, well, they probably do! So be savvy about how much liquid you give them.  Try to make sure they go to the toilet just before they go to bed, but if they KEEP saying they need to go to the loo but nothing materialises (and you’re sure they’re not constipated etc), then why not try giving them a ‘Toilet Pass’, which they’re allowed to use once an evening?  That can be an actual physical pass that they use, or just let them know they have one chance to go to the toilet. It’s also a good idea to check their temp too, just in case they are brewing something and not feeling 100%.

Morning time?…

That covers the night, but what about the morning? Got to love that surprise visit from our little ones at 5:15 AM, asking us if it’s morning yet, but 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, especially if they have black out curtains in their room.

Personally, we use the Gro-Clocks from Amazon, which turns blue when you turn it on (blue light’s not great, but you can dim it which makes it a little better) and has stars that countdown to morning time around the edge.  Then, when morning arrives, it turns (silently) to a yellow sunshine. It’s a nifty concept and pretty easy for little ones above about 2 – 2.5 years old to grasp. There’s of course plenty of other similar things on the market too.

Or, if you want to save your money and your toddler knows their numbers, you can do what my friend did and just get a digital clock and put some tape over the minutes, leaving just the hour showing.  They would tell them it’s not time to get up until they see the “magic seven” on the clock (or whatever time you choose). 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 realise that you’re not giving in, they’ll soon jump back into bed.  After all, they’re never going to fall asleep while they’re trotting around the house!

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