For many parents, getting their baby to sleep through the night is a life-changing event. I know it certainly was for me.
Waking up every hour or two to the sounds of a crying baby wasn’t just an inconvenience. It was absolutely exhausting. I was constantly irritable, completely unfocused, unable to keep track of anything, and, quite honestly, felt like I might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
So needless to say, when I finally started sleep training and my baby learned to sleep 10-12 hours a night without any help from me, and got into a predictable rhythm with naps, it felt like nothing short of a miracle. And conversely, when my baby wasn’t so much of a baby anymore and had learned to walk and talk, and more importantly, to test some boundaries, and started leaving the bedroom in the night, I was apprehensive to say the least.
A toddler leaving their bedroom may sound harmless, but if it happens often enough, it can be every bit as hard on parents and children as constant night waking. And toddlers can be incredibly persistent when they’re trying to get their way.
The thing that makes this scenario trickier than sleep training a baby is that your little one, by this age, has probably learned a few negotiating tactics. I’m not saying this in a negative way, but toddlers quickly learn how to manipulate people. It’s not that they’re malicious or conniving, it’s just human nature. We test behaviours and actions to see if they get us what we’re after, and when we find something that works, we tend to use it repeatedly.
So if asking for a glass of water gets 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 after hours, you’re likely to use the same approach every time. That can be a soothing fact to keep in your mind when you’re walking your child back to their room for the 15th time since you sat down to watch your favourite show or are trying to enjoy a couple of hours alone with your partner.
Now, bearing in mind that yelling is just going to upset everyone, and that giving in will just encourage more of the same behaviour, how do we get a toddler to stay in their room without letting the situation escalate?
Consequences, mama. Consequences are the key.
I should start off here by saying that I think it’s only fair to always give one warning before implementing a consequence for unwanted behaviour. If your child leaves their room, ask them why they’re not in bed. Assuming the answer isn’t because they’re not feeling well, (which can often be a ruse, but should always be at least addressed and checked out before calling it such) 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.
Hopefully, that does the trick. More than likely, especially if this is a behaviour 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 bunny (which is, of course, in their hand when they say this) it’s time to implement that consequence.
Now we get to the big question, right? What’s the consequence? I’ve had a lot of parents tell me, “I know I need to discipline him somehow, but I don’t want it to be anything that will upset him.”
I totally understand this line of thinking, but really, what is a consequence if it’s not something unpleasant? How is it ever going to dissuade unwanted behaviour if it isn’t somehow disagreeable?
The simple answer is, it won’t. I had a friend once who used to punish her toddler by putting him in “Time-out” for five minutes. Time-out, of course, meant sitting on Mom’s lap while she rubbed his back and sang to him. I used to consider chucking a toy or two myself to see if it would get me a quick massage and a soothing rendition of my favourite Fleetwood Mac song.