The patter of little feet on the floor is never a welcome sound after lights out. "It's natural for a toddler or preschooler to search out his parents in the middle of the night for comfort and security," says sleep expert Elizabeth Pantley. But if nighttime wanderings are getting in the way of your toddler's sleep (not to mention your own), here are a 10 ways to encourage him to stay in bed:
1. Make the transition between ages one and three: Most children make the transition out of their cribs between ages one and three. Sleep director Jodi Mindell suggests waiting until closer to age three whenever possible. "Many children have difficulty with imaginary boundaries before this age and need the constraints of a crib," says Mindell.
If you're worried your child will climb out of his crib, you can use a crib tent to keep him safe.
2. Be consistent: "Don't send mixed messages," says Pantley. Don't let your child come into bed with you some nights. Instead, send a clear message that sleeping is to be done in his bed.
3. What if you still crave cuddle time? If you like your child coming into bed with you in the early morning, create a signal to let him know it's okay to get up and come into your bed for a snuggle when the night is almost through. "The signal can be when it's light outside or when he hears music (from the alarm) in your room," says Pantley.
4. Bedtime Routine: Keep his bedtime the same as it was in the crib. " Bring a comfort item from the crib, such as a blankie," says Mindell. It will make your child feel more comfortable.
5. Be a Bore: When your child comes out, return him to bed right away. Try to be as boring as possible. You may have to return him many times at first. "Neutral is key to driving home a message," says Kira Ryan, co-founder of dreamteambaby.com.
6. Try Pantley's Rubber Band Bounce Technique: Just before your bedtime routine begins, explain why you want your child to stay in his bed. Pantley suggests saying: "When you come in my room during the night, you wake me up and then I'm tired the next day." Communicate that you want him to stay in his bed all night long.
Finish your bedtime routine with your child in bed. Every time he gets out of bed, calmly put him back. Kiss him, give him a hug, or rub his back.
Don't talk much, don't turn on any lights. Choose a key phrase to repeat to him a few times, such as: "It's night, night time now. Mommy loves you. Please stay in your bed and have sweet dreams." After one to two weeks, your child should be sleeping in their bed through the night.
7. Create a boundary: If you haven't started nighttime toilet training, create a boundary by putting a gate across his doorway or shutting the door and putting childproof handles on it that he can't open it.
8. Create Choices: Help your child be in control of the situation. Ryan suggests saying: "I'm going to keep the door open, but if you leave then I will have to close it."
9. Be Safe: Chances are your child will get up and wander around his room at times, so make the space around him safe. "Take away things he can step on and make sure book shelves can't fall over," says Ryan. You also want to use bed rails until your child is four or five years old. "It depends on how still of sleeper your child is," adds Mindell.
10. Listen to your child's signals: "The transition will be easier for some children," says Ryan. Listen to your child and, if he's really not ready, move him back to his crib and try again in a few months.
Meet our Experts:
Elizabeth Pantley is a member of the Just the facts, Baby expert panel and best-selling author of eight parenting books, including The No-Cry Sleep Solution.
Jodi Mindell is the associate director of the Sleep Center at Philadelphia's Children's Hospital. She is also the author of Sleeping Through the Night.
Kira Ryan is the co-founder of dreamteambaby.com, a New York-based sleep consultation service.