How to Encourage your Child to Stay in their Room

For many parents, the milestone of their child sleeping through the night is life changing. I know it certainly was for me! Night wakings aren’t just inconvenient, they are exhausting. I struggled to navigate the demands of the day due to brain fog, irritability, and lack of motivation. When my baby mastered independent sleep, it felt like a weight had been lifted, and my patience was restored. However, as with life, sleep evolves as our children grow. The toddler years bring newfound independence and personality. At this stage they are mobile negotiators and keeping them in their room can be a real challenge. It’s crucial to recognize that toddlers learn through repetition and will often test boundaries repeatedly to confirm outcomes. So, when you find yourself walking your child back to bed for the fifteenth time since tucking them in, remember this as a point of reference!

Understanding that yelling will upset everyone and giving in encourages the behavior, the question arises: How do we get them to stay in their room without the situation spiraling out of control? The answer lies in consequences, consequences are the key. Since toddlers’ memories can be variable, it’s fair to give one warning before implementing a consequence for undesirable behavior. If your child leaves their room, ask them why they’re not in bed. Assuming it’s not due to illness, calmly but firmly explain the rule that they must stay in their room until morning. Walk them back to bed, say goodnight, and remind them of the consequence if they leave the room again. It’s likely they’ll challenge this boundary and venture out again armed with excuses! This is when the consequence should be applied, but many parents struggle with this step. They don’t want to upset their child, especially when the goal is for them to go to sleep. There needs to be a balance between something that your child doesn’t mind and something that pushes them into a complete meltdown. Remember, the aim isn’t to traumatize them but to offer a deterrent.

In my experience, a simple yet highly effective trick in this situation is closing the door. Toddlers tend to dislike closing the door until it latches. You don’t need to keep it closed for long, start with 1-minute for the first offense and add 30-60 seconds for each subsequent departure from their room that night. They may protest, but consistency is key; keep the door closed for the allotted time. If they attempt to open the door, hold it shut. It may lead to tears but stick to the consequence and allow them the space to self-regulate. Opening the door prematurely only reinforces the idea that crying gets them what they want, making matters worse. If your child already sleeps with the door closed, you can try removing their favorite lovey/stuffie/blanket following the same pattern as the door closing technique, with added time for repeat offenses.

Now what about those early morning visits at 5AM when they ask if it’s morning yet? This is when the “ok-to-wake” clocks can be helpful. These clocks remain one color throughout the night and change color when it’s time to get up. Avoid those emitting blue light, as it can mimic sunlight and stimulate cortisol production, making it difficult to get back to sleep. Alternatively, if your toddler knows their numbers, a digital clock can serve the same purpose. Cover the minutes with tape leaving only the hour visible and inform tell them they can’t get up until they see the “magic seven”. Remember not to set an alarm because you don’t want to wake them if they happen to sleep past seven o’clock!

These are just a couple of strategies, but they may not be universally effective. You may need to experiment with various approaches until you find what works best. However, the one thing that is non-negotiable: consistency. Once you’ve issued a warning, you must follow through with the consequence. Empty threats will only encourage them to test the boundaries relentlessly night after night. Be patient, be firm yet calm, and above all be consistent. Once they realize you won’t back down, they’ll accept the rule and stay in their room.