How To Keep Toddlers In Their Room

For many parents, getting their baby to sleep through the night is a life-changing event; for me it certainly was!  Waking up every hour or two to the sounds of a crying baby wasn’t just an inconvenience, it was exhausting. I was irritable, unmotivated, lacked focus, and, quite honestly, felt on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Needless to say, when I took the step to teach my daughter independent sleep skills and she began sleeping uninterrupted overnight with predictable daytime naps, it was amazing! However, it seemed that in the blink of an eye my sweet baby had grown into a full-fledged toddler. She walked, talked, and had a mind of her own! Boundary testing is common during the toddler years and boy does it take a lot of patience. They may begin leaving their bedroom at night which can sound harmless, but when it happens often it can be just a disruptive as constant night waking. Toddlers are persistent and if yours are like mine, tireless negotiators!

It’s human nature to test boundaries with certain behaviors or actions to see what we can get. If we are successful with an action, we will use it repeatedly. So, if asking for a glass of water gets mom back in the room, or asking to use the bathrooms satisfies curiosity about what’s going on outside of your room, you are likely to use the same approach every time. Keep this in mind when you’re walking your child back to their room for the fifteenth time since you sat down to enjoy a show or connect with your partner! If yelling upsets everyone and giving in encourages the same behavior, what are we left to do? How do we keep the toddler in their room without the situation escalating? Consequences! Consequences are key. Let me start by saying it is 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 is not because they’re sick (careful as this can sometimes be an excuse, so always address it before writing it off) then you can remind them in a calm and firm tone that they are not to leave their room until morning. Walk them back to bed, say goodnight, give a quick kiss, and remind them that if they leave their room again there will be consequences. Hopefully, just this will be enough.

However, if this behavior has already been going on a while it may not be! So, when they show up in the living room again saying they forgot to tell you something, need water, or lost their stuffie it’s time to implement the consequence. Okay, so the big question here is what is the consequence? Many parents tell me “I know I need to discipline them somehow, but I don’t want it to be anything that will upset them”. I understand this line of thinking but what is a consequence if it’s not something unpleasant? How will it dissuade unwanted behavior if it isn’t disagreeable? The answer is it won’t! The trick is to find a balance between something your child doesn’t mind and something that throws them into a tailspin, because we are not trying to traumatize anyone! We want something unpleasant enough to dissuade the behavior. I know that every child is different and nothing works for everyone, but I have found a simple trick that is effective in this situation and it’s as simple as closing the door. Yes, that’s it, close the bedroom door! There is something about having the bedroom door closed until it latches that toddlers really dislike. It doesn’t need to be for long, just one minute for the first offense then increase by thirty seconds every time they leave the room that night.

This is a form of consequence and if your child cries because they don’t like it that is kind of the point. If they cry, just let them cry. If they open the door you will have to hold it closed. If they have a complete meltdown, let them meltdown. Do not give in. Stick to that minute or other allocated time you set and be consistent. If you give in, you are teaching them that they just need to push harder to get their way which will make things significantly worse. If your toddler already sleeps with the door closed then you can try taking away their lovey/stuffie/blanket on the same time pattern you would the door closing technique. A minute the first time around, thirty seconds the second time, and so on. Before long they will start to recognize the negative consequence of leaving their room and will stay in bed unless they have an actual issue.

So, now that we covered the night, what do we do about the morning. We’ve all gotten that surprise visit from our little one at 5AM asking if it’s morning yet or stating they are ready to get up. Chances are they legitimately woke up and did not know if it was time to get out of bed. This is where a toddler clock can be really helpful. There are many available that range from $25-$50. They shine a soft light that is one color through the night and another color when it’s time to get up. Stay away from any that shine blue light because blue light simulates sunlight which stimulates cortisol production and makes getting back to sleep more difficult. Another affordable option if your toddler knows their numbers, is a digital clock. You can put tape over the minutes so only the hour shows and instruct them that it’s not time to get up until they see the “magic seven” on the clock. In this instance leave the alarm function off because you don’t want them waking to a buzzing alarm if they happen to sleep past 7AM!

These are a couple of options that typically work but may not with every toddler. You might have to try a few different approaches before figuring out what’s effective, but what is absolutely not optional is consistency. Once you give a warning to your toddler you must follow through. There is a lot they do not know given their age but what they learn quickly are empty threats. In fact, it is their nature to systematically test boundaries to see if the rules change. Be patient, calm, firm, and predictable. Once they realize the rules won’t change you are free to enjoy your evening and night uninterrupted!