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The Escaping Toddler

For many of us, when our baby FINALLY sleeps through the night, it’s life-changing. It definitely was for me! To go from the exhaustion of waking every few hours to a sweet 10-12 hours of freedom. To go from wondering when you will be jerked out of sleep by your crying baby, to crawling under the covers with the confidence that you are about to get a full night of sleep. It truly is incredible.

But what happens when your baby starts to walk and talk and learns to test boundaries? What happens when your baby (who isn’t really a baby anymore) realizes he/she can leave the bedroom at night?

A toddler leaving their bedroom may sound harmless, but if it happens consistently, it can be just as hard on parents as it was when that child wasn’t sleeping through the night as a baby. And we all know toddlers can be incredibly persistent when they’re trying to get their way!

The reason this scenario is trickier than sleep training a baby is that your little one has probably learned a few negotiating tactics. Toddlers quickly learn how to manipulate people. It’s not that they’re malicious or conniving, it’s just human nature. We test behaviors and actions to see if they get us what we want. When we find something that works, we tend to use it repeatedly.

So if asking for a glass of water is the ticket to getting mom back into the room, or asking to use the bathroom helps to satisfy your curiosity about what’s going on outside of your room, you’re likely to use the same approach every time. That’s something you can keep in your mind when you’re walking your child back to their room for the fifteenth time since you sat down to watch your favorite show or are trying to enjoy a couple of hours alone with your partner.

We both know that getting mad is just going to upset everyone and that giving in will just encourage more of the same behavior. So how do we get a toddler to stay in their room??

Consequences. Consequences are the key.

I should start off by saying that I think it’s only fair to always give one warning before implementing a consequence for unwanted behavior. If your child leaves their room, ask them why they’re not in bed. Assuming the answer isn’t because they’re sick, (which can often be a ruse, but should at least be addressed and checked out) then you can calmly but firmly tell them that they’re not allowed out of their room until morning. Walk them back to bed, say goodnight, give them a quick smooch, and let them know that there will be a consequence if they leave their room again.

Ideally, that would do the trick. More than likely, especially if this is a behavior that’s been going on for a while already, it won’t.

When they show up in the living room again, saying that they forgot to tell you something, or that their water is too warm, or that they can’t find their lovie, it’s time to implement that consequence.

Here’s the big question. What’s the consequence? A lot of parents say, “I know I need to discipline him somehow, but I don’t want it to be anything that will upset him.”

I get it, I do. But to be honest, it wouldn’t be a consequence if it wasn’t something unpleasant, right? The behavior will never change if the consequence isn’t something they don’t want to happen.

So if the “consequence” is a time out on Mom’s lap while mom rubs your back. It won’t be very effective, will it?

The trick here is to find a balance between something that your child doesn’t mind and something that really upsets them. We don’t want to traumatize anyone, we’re just looking for something unpleasant enough to dissuade the behavior.

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.

Actually, that’s the trick.

Yep. 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. You don’t have to do it for long. Just a minute for the first offence, then bump it up 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 the point, right? So if they cry a little, you’ll have to ride it out. If they try to open the door, you’re going to have to hold it closed. If they pitch a fit, let them, but don’t give in. If you give in, all you’re teaching them is that they just need to throw a fit in order to get their way. Guess what they will try first next time?

If your toddler already sleeps with the door closed, you can try taking away their lovie/stuffie/blanket on the same time pattern 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 recognize the negative consequences of leaving their room, and they’ll stay in bed unless they have an actual issue.

That covers the night, but what about the morning? We’ve all gotten that surprise visit from our little ones at 5:15 AM, asking us if it’s morning yet, and you really can’t hold that against them. They legitimately woke up and didn’t know if it was time to get out of bed or not.

If you have a few bucks to spare, you can get yourself an OK-To-Wake clock, or a similar one from Amazon. These clocks will glow a soft light of a specific color when it’s time to get up. Personally, my toddler caught onto this quickly. He knew that the light had to be green before he could leave his room in the morning. Just be sure to stay away from any that shine blue light, as it simulates sunlight, which can increase cortisol production and make it tougher to get back to sleep.

If you want to save your money, and your toddler knows their numbers, you can just get a digital clock and put some tape over the minutes, leaving just the hour showing. Talk about “magic seven”, let them practice writing it themselves, ingrain that number into their head. Then tell them, in the morning it’s not time to get up until they see “magic seven” on their clock.

These are just a couple of ideas and they may not work with every toddler. You may have to try out a few different approaches before you find something that sticks.

The most important thing to remember with toddlers 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. Don’t be surprised if they systematically test 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 realize that you’re not giving in, you’ll be free to break out the good snacks and relax! Good luck!

Photo by Frank McKenna on Unsplash


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