It can be the last and most exhausting struggle of the day: convincing your little one to go to bed and actually stay there. When my three oldest were young I looked forward to 8 o’clock each night as if a genie was going to pop out of a bottle and grant all my wishes. Honestly, just having the chance to sit down for more than 10 minutes at a time and have an uninterrupted conversation with my husband was all I was wishing for most nights (although some really good ice cream would have been nice as well). So when one of more of the kids spent the next few hours coming out of his room to tell me he needed a drink or a story or crying because his bed didn’t want him to go to sleep, I wasn’t a very happy mom. In case any of the rest of you have had this same problem (and I’m guessing you have) I’ve gathered up 13 tips for getting your little kids to go to bed and stay there.
NOTE: some of these tips will work better for some kids than others, and you might be more comfortable implementing some ideas than others. That’s ok. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to parent, just sharing ideas! Please take what seems useful to you and be respectful of what might be useful to someone else.
1. Race Dad (or Mom) to bed. This can turn into a nightly tradition to help little ones who are reluctant to head into their rooms at night. Be sure to spend some time talking it up, saying things like “you’ll never make it into your room before me!”, etc., to get your little one excited about the prospect of beating you.
2. Use a sticker chart to track your child’s nighttime routine, including going to bed the first time she’s asked and staying in bed all night. You can institute rewards for when the chart gets a certain number of stickers, but often just the chance to put up stickers is incentive enough, especially for toddlers. Use this bedtime routine sticker chart from Amazon, or make your own.
3. Introduce an incentive for the child to go to bed by himself. For example, if he walks in and lays down all by himself he gets to hear 2 stories, but if Mom has to carry him to his room he gets 1 (or none). Be sure to be consistent! It won’t work if you cave and give 2 stories anyway.
4. Spend 10 or 15 minutes snuggling with your child in her own bed. This will help her relax and feel comfortable and give you guys a chance to have some 1-on-1 time. It might be helpful to set a timer and tell your child at the beginning how long you will stay so she doesn’t beg you to hang out for the next two hours. If she cries or doesn’t let you leave when the timer goes off, she doesn’t get to snuggle tomorrow.
5. Talk about what will happen tomorrow. This can be especially helpful for a child who’s happy to go to bed but doesn’t want to stay there. Remind him he has to fall asleep before tomorrow can come and he can go to preschool, play with friends, have his favorite breakfast, etc.
6. Use a ticket system. Another option for kids who don’t want to stay in bed is to give her one ticket per night, which she must turn in to you if she needs to come out for any reason. Once her ticket is gone she must stay in bed. Follow up with a consequence if she continues coming out.
7. Discourage continually coming out of the room by putting one item from the child’s bedroom in “time-out” each time he comes out of the room. Oftentimes just the possibility of a favorite toy being taken away for the night is enough to keep a child in her room.
8. Purchase a bedtime clock, which shows kids when it’s nighttime and when it’s ok to come out in the morning. These are especially helpful for early risers who wake you up at 5 am every morning. This Ok to Wake clock from Amazon acts as a nightlight that changes color in the morning to show kids it’s ok to come out (it also functions as an alarm clock, and be set to change colors at nap time too!)
9. Allow kids to “read” in bed for a while each night. For pre-readers, try these electronic “Me Reader” books. Each set comes with 8 different story books based on your child’s favorite characters (princess, classic Disney movies, Thomas the Train, Sesame Street, etc). Each book has 8 pages, and each page has a colored symbol on it. A child presses the corresponding symbol on the MeReader to hear that page read aloud. It’s much easier for young children to follow along with than books on CD. My daughter was able to use these independently at 2-years old, and they’re still a great incentive for her to to to bed and stay there.
10. Try an earlier bedtime. When kids are very tired, they tend to get cranky and oppositional, making putting them to bed even harder than it might otherwise be. Try an earlier bedtime, maybe as early as 7:00 or 7:30 for a toddler, so you’re putting her to bed when she’s still in a good mood. Allow her to stay in her room with the light on for a while and read or play as she gets tired.
11. Try the “Super Nanny” system. The first time your child comes out of bed, put him back in, explaining why he needs to go to sleep. If he continues to come out, continue to put him back in bed, but don’t speak to him. Don’t yell, don’t bargain, don’t explain. Just calmly pick him up and put him back in bed. You may have to do this over and over the first night or two, but he should learn quickly that coming out gets him nowhere.
12. Offer a privilege pass if you child goes to bed by herself and stays there until morning. The privilege could be snuggle time in the morning, extra story time, or even a slightly later bedtime the next night.
13. Shut or lock the bedroom door. Let your child know that after the first time he comes out the door to his room will be shut, and if he comes out again, the door to his room will be locked. Do not open or unlock the door in response to crying from the child; instead, explain that as soon as he calms down and chooses to stay in bed the door will be opened again. Be sure to unlock and open the door before YOU go to bed so the child would be able to get out in case of any danger. An alternative to this is to use a baby gate in the door (if your child cannot climb over it). That was he can still see out into the hallway but is unable to keep coming out of his room.
Above all, whichever method you choose to try, BE CONSISTENT! It will likely take at least a few nights for any new technique to be effective, and being inconsistent will make it take much longer. On the flip side, if you’ve tried something consistently for a few weeks and it’s just not working, it’s ok to switch strategies – kids are different, and the things that work well for one child may not work at all for another. And hang in there – it really does get easier!
If you have any ideas that have worked great for you that I didn’t mention, please share them in the comments!