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Do your children get out of bed as soon as you put them down? Or get up in the middle of the night? Or want to wake you up at 5am? I can tell you how to get your kids to stay in bed at any age!
When it came to sleep we got lucky with our son. He was sleeping all night in his own crib at a couple weeks old. Don’t hate us, but it was great. As a new mom I was like, what is wrong with parents? Getting babies to sleep is easy! We’re AWESOME! (Just wait, we were paid back for that attitude when our daughter came along.)
It’s not that he never woke up in the middle of the night, but I encouraged good sleep habits by setting the baby monitor low enough that if he woke up and fussed I wouldn’t hear it. I would only hear a big, long cry and would go in if he really couldn’t get himself back to sleep. I also followed the method in this book – feeding him right before I went to bed around 11pm allowed him to sleep later in the morning, instead of waking up for a 3am feeding.
Our daughter was another story. She NEVER wanted to sleep. She hated being left alone for any reason (hints of what was to come – she’s the only extrovert in a family of introverts), and was almost a year old before she was sleeping through the night, in her own crib, in a room with her brother. It took a while, but eventually we got the job done.
I’m giving you this background so that you don’t think we had two great sleepers right from the start. The methods we used to keep them in their own beds later on worked on both of them, even though they were completely different kids with totally different personalities. At several different points up until probably age five or six, both of them forgot everything they knew about sleeping, and it felt like going back to square one. But these methods got the kids back on track.
While we used different methods at different stages, there were some things we did throughout that helped to let our kids know that we didn’t mess around when it came to sleep. It was almost as though our parent brains shut down once we put the kids to bed, and we didn’t react kindly when the kids invaded our adult time. We made sure not to reward them for that. They never, ever got to stay up after getting out of bed. We didn’t chat with them or make them feel welcome. If that sounds harsh, so be it. Being a parent is hard enough without also being a walking zombie.
Set yourself up for success. Be consistent. Don’t bluff. Have a good bedtime routine that doesn’t change from night to night or person to person. Try to anticipate what they’ll need from you in the middle of the night, and solve it. Leave a sippy cup of water next to their bed. Scatter pacifiers everywhere. Make a trail of nightlights to the bathroom.
I can’t remember where I picked the first two methods up (the third was my own idea). I probably saw them on either Dr. Phil or Super Nanny or Oprah (I watched a ton of TV before Social Media was a thing). And while I probably changed some details and put my own spin on them, they were not my ideas. I would love to give proper credit, so if anyone knows where they came from I’m happy to add that info to this post!Here are three methods to get your kids to stay in their beds! Click To Tweet
Method One: How To Make A Toddler Stay In Bed
Once your child is old enough to get out of a crib on his own, or moves to a bed, you’ve lost the control that a crib gave you. Some kids just don’t want to stay in bed at bedtime. But trust me, you can get that control back. For us, the first night of this method was very rough. Prepare yourself mentally for this, and try to start on a weekend or before a day off so that you can catch up on sleep during the day.
The second night was always much easier. And while we usually had to continue for more than a week until our kids were sleeping well again, most nights after the first couple it only took ten or fifteen minutes.
Start by doing your normal bedtime routine, then tuck your child in and say goodnight. Tell him that he needs to stay in bed, and that you’re going to stay and make sure he does. Then turn off the light and sit next to the bed, with your back to the child. Don’t use a cell phone, don’t read, don’t do anything that’s going to make you move around or light up the room or be distracting in any way. Sit still. The one thing I think you could probably get away with would be listening to something with headphones (hey, great time to check out my podcast!).
Don’t be surprised if he gets up right away, to test you.
What I’m going to say next is super important. In fact, if you’re not going to do what I say next, you probably shouldn’t bother with this method at all. You can NOT talk to your child for this entire process, and you can NOT make eye contact. It’s very important that your child does not get any kind of reward from getting out of bed, no matter how small. No smiling, either.
When your child gets out of bed, simply pick him up, put him back in bed, pull the covers up if you’re using covers, and sit back down with your back to the child. If the child struggles, just keep calmly putting him back in bed. Don’t let him know that he’s upsetting you or frustrating you in any way. Be robotic.
Repeat. Repeat a LOT. My memory is fuzzy at this point but I feel like this first night always took several hours, at least. The first hour in particular was just an endless loop of sitting down, getting back up, putting the kid back in bed, and barely sitting down again before getting up and doing it all over.
So why stick to it? Why does this eventually work? Because your child is smart, and is testing you. It will take a while for your kid to realize that you’re serious. And if you last for, say, half an hour, and then give up and read him another story, all you’ve taught him is that he needs to drive you crazy for half an hour in order to get you to give in. And it will be even harder the next time you try this. So if you’re not going to stick with it, don’t even start.
If you need a break, tag team with your partner or enlist a friend to help.
Eventually your child will get worn down and will stay in bed. Once you think he’s asleep, quietly move a few feet from the bed. After ten or fifteen minutes, if he still hasn’t gotten out of bed, move a few more feet away. If he gets up, put him back in bed and start over sitting right by the bed, with your back to it.
Eventually you’ll get to the door. Quietly leave. If he gets out of bed, start the process over. I know that sounds frustrating, but every time I did this it was only the first night that was bad. Like I said, your child is testing you. Don’t fail the test!
By the second night things should be easier. Do the same method. Stay strong. Hopefully, the method gets shorter each night, until you can drop it altogether. Just remember, the key is to give your child absolutely no reward for getting up.
If your child goes to sleep well but has problems in the middle of the night, this method works for that too. Let them know at bedtime that if they get out of bed in the middle of the night, you’re going to put them back in bed and that will be that. You can leave and let them fall asleep, and then start the method when they get out of bed in the middle of the night.
Method Two: How To Keep Pre-K/Kindergarteners In Bed At Bedtime
Once our kids were in pre-K we thought we were done with sleep problems. But really, I think the start of “real” school probably prompted the sleep problems. Growth spurts, changes at home, new routines, there are so many things that can mess up a child’s sleep. But this method worked great when each kid had a sleeping backslide, and they were old enough that we could move on from the first method. Every child is different, but I’d say the sweet spot for this method is four to seven years old. Any older than that and I would just move to a straight punishment: stay in bed or this will happen – no more games, no more messing around.
This is a method for kids who just won’t go to bed at bedtime. They pop out of bed, thinking it’s a game, sure that you’re having a party without them. Or maybe they’re used to sleeping with you and don’t like the idea of falling asleep alone.
However, if they’re falling asleep fine but waking up in the middle of the night, I would still use method one no matter how old the kids are.
So let’s say you’ve done the bedtime routine and have tucked your child in. Now what you want to do is tell her that this is the night she’s going to stay in bed all by herself, and you’re so excited for her! Make a big deal out if it. This is kind of the opposite of the first method, which is calm and quiet and has no rewards. The difference is that this method is ONLY for bedtime, and only for kids who are a bit older, I’d say four or five and up.
Tell your child that you’re sure she can stay in bed without you, give her a kiss, tell her again how excited you are, and then turn off the light and leave. Close the door and then go back in immediately. You don’t want to give her even a second to get out of bed before you go back in. You need to make sure that you go back in fast enough that she’s still in bed. And then make a BIG FREAKING DEAL out of how great she is for staying in bed! Give her more hugs and kisses and tell her how proud you are.
Then tell her you know she can do it again. Leave, and this time count to five before going back in. And repeat all of the praise! Make sure she knows how incredibly awesome she is for staying in bed! I know this seems over the top, but it has to be in order to work.
Do it again, this time staying out for fifteen seconds. Then thirty. Then a minute. Then two. Then five. Then ten. Then fifteen. Then thirty.
We’ve NEVER gotten to thirty minutes. Eventually, we would go back in and she would be asleep. She wanted the praise, and she knew we were going to come back in and give it to her, and she fell asleep waiting.
And at that point, when you find the child asleep, you’re done — until the next night. You know your child, and you’ll get a sense of when you can ease up. After a day or two you won’t have to go right back in the first time, maybe wait fifteen seconds instead. Then you’ll be able to wait a few minutes the first time. Then you’ll be able to just drop it all together. Problem solved!
Remember, this only works if you totally overdo it on the praise. You have to make your kid feel like such a rock star each time she stays in bed that she doesn’t want to risk messing it up!
Method Three: How To Keep Older Kids In Bed Later In The Morning
Even though our kids slept consistently through the night with just a few hiccups, they always wanted to get up earlier than we did. I don’t know what it is about 5am that is so attractive to kids, but ours always wanted to be up before the sun. (Don’t worry, that passes: they’re now twelve and fifteen and if they don’t have school, we don’t see them until after noon.)
Because we never let our kids sleep in our bed at night, climbing into bed with us in the morning for a snuggle was a huge reward for them, and we realized that we could use that to help them stay in bed a little longer in the morning.
To use this method your child does not need to know how to tell time, he just needs to know how to count to ten. You don’t need to buy any special equipment, but if you want to (or you want to try this before your child knows his numbers), there are plenty of clocks on the market that tell your child when it’s OK to get up in the morning.
Take a digital clock and put black electrical tape over all of the numbers except the one-digit hour number (in other words, cover the first, third, and fourth spots). Decide what time it’s OK for your child to get up. We decided on six.
Explain to your child that if they get up before the clock says six, they can’t come snuggle in bed with you. Or whatever reward/punishment you’re going with. (Don’t even think about trying this if you’re not going to stick to that threat.) Play around with the clock and test them. Put the hour on four and ask them if it’s OK to get up. Put it on one and ask them. Put it on seven and ask them. You get the idea. Keep at it until they understand. You can even put a note next to the clock with the “OK” numbers circled.
Also explain to them that going to the bathroom is OK, they just can’t wake mommy and daddy up. And make sure they know that if there’s an emergency, you always want them to wake you up, no matter what the numbers say!
Now all you have to do is stick to it. My daughter threw a tantrum the first time we tried this. She got up and five and told us she wasn’t tired. I brought her back to bed and reminded her that now she couldn’t snuggle with us in the morning. And an hour later, when she tried to climb into bed with us, I led her out of our room and got her some breakfast. She cried and cried. It was awful.
But that was it. She got it the next night. She came in after six, and gleefully climbed into bed with us.
I hope these methods help you. It’s worth noting that if your kids are used to you bluffing, if you regularly threaten punishments and don’t follow through, these methods are going to take a lot longer to work. Stay strong, and remind yourself that you’ll be a better parent with a good night’s sleep.