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Expert Advice on How to Get Your Toddler to Stay in Bed




Written by:

Barbara Mighdoll

Expert reviewed by Autumn Dettman, Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant.

Transitioning your toddler to their big-kid bed is a milestone that can spark a mix of emotions. You're excited they're growing up, yet you dread the bedtime battles and late-night escapes you've heard other parents talk about.

Wow, did we have issues getting Caden to stay in his own bed! After making the crib to toddler bed transition, we had major issues. Our friends recommended a toddler color clock (which we had tried in the past) so we decided to give it one more shot. After many frustrating nights, I became so worn down during bedtime routine that I started threatening Caden with locking his door (even though I couldn’t because the lock was on the inside of the room).

After several empty threats, I finally had Jason switch the lock. I was still apprehensive about it but after seeing a sleep consultant, she comforted my guilt and helped me understand that the lock is for his safety, he used to be “locked” in his crib, now he is locked with much more freedom in his room. While this method isn't for every family, we started locking the door at bedtime and it worked!

This nightly standoff was frustrating, exhausting, and made me feel horrible. However, with the right approach, you can master the art of keeping a toddler in bed and even make them excited about bedtime! I’m excited to share expert tips from the actual sleep consultant who helped us with Caden. Meet Autumn Dettmann, a Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant from Rest, Grow, Thrive. Together, we'll demystify the process and turn those bedtime blues into a smooth routine.

a sleep consultant's guide to keeping a toddler in bed

The importance of independent sleep in toddlers

Nap time or bedtime can feel like a real challenge during your child's transition to a toddler bed. Sleep is crucial for everyone in the family, and if your current sleep routine is not sustainable, it's a great time to consider making changes. Autumn explains, “The important thing to know and understand about independent sleep is that if it is something you desire in your family dynamic, that’s absolutely ok.” Don’t feel guilty for wanting your kiddo to build independent sleeping skills.

Autumn also emphasizes that it's totally fine if you decide to skip over independent sleeping. She says, “If it is not something you want for your child right now, that is also ok. You don’t have to feel pressured into having your child sleep independently.” While the shift from a crib to the big kid bed is a significant milestone, identifying that your little one is ready for a new challenge is the first step. Every family approaches sleep differently and it’s a deeply personal decision – there isn’t one right way.

The right time for a transition to a toddler bed 

There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer. Every toddler is different and each family has different goals. I have friends who transitioned their toddlers at 20 months because they were crawling out of their cribs, while we waited until right after Caden turned 3 because the space was getting cramped for him and he was complaining he wasn’t comfy. I also thought he needed to be in a toddler bed in order to potty train, which was completely false. We even have friends whose toddlers are almost 4 and still sleep in a crib.

IMO I’d wait until you feel there is a reason to move them for safety or comfort, rather than thinking you need to from societal pressures.

Autumn recommends, “If you are transitioning from a crib, I’d encourage waiting until as close to age 3 (or well after) as possible!” Autumn also notes that if you are transitioning from co-sleeping, “you can either transition when your child is ready for a crib (under age 2.5/3) or transition straight to a toddler bed for children over age 3.” Each child’s sleep needs are different, so it's best to wait until your toddler shows signs they're ready, such as climbing out of the crib or verbally expressing interest in a toddler bed. 

4 effective strategies for a smooth transition to a toddler bed

Consistency is key

According to Autumn, setting boundaries and expectations is crucial when it comes to getting your kiddo to stay their new bed. Consistency provides toddlers with a sense of security and confidence. As Autumn explains, “Consistently following through makes our children feel confident and secure in our word and the world around them.” By maintaining a consistent bedtime routine, even when your toddler asks for ‘just one more' bedtime story, you are helping them trust the new routine and reducing their desire to push against the boundaries.

The family meeting

She says, “When working on toddler sleep, we can help prepare them for any changes during the day.” Consider hosting a family meeting to discuss the upcoming shift in their sleep situation. Explain what will happen and use words and phrases that make them feel comfortable and excited. Autumn emphasizes, “We have to remember to simplify our language, but don’t underestimate your toddler’s ability to understand the new normal around sleep.” You might say, ‘It’s our job to help you get the sleep you need. We’ll all get our best sleep in our own beds. We are going to help you learn how to sleep in your own bed at night time.'

This is also a great time to introduce any tools that might assist them, like an ok-to-wake clock, nightlight, or special stuffy. Autumn notes that consistency is crucial when implementing any new bedtime strategy. Any approach you take should be slow and gradual. Some families find it helpful to start the process of independent sleep by initially stepping out of the room and returning for regular check-ins. You may want to stretch out intervals over a few weeks if your toddler needs to go at a slower pace.

A predictable routine

Create a soothing nighttime routine that signals it's time to sleep. This could include a bath, a bedtime story, and dimmed lights. You might also consider using a reward system, like a sticker chart, to reward your child for staying in their bed throughout the night. It could be as simple as giving a sticker each night or a small gift during the early days of this transitional period.

Addressing your toddler's fears about sleeping alone

Feeling scared or anxious about sleeping alone in a big bed with all this freedom is a real challenge for many toddlers. Even if your little one slept in their own room in a crib, oftentimes the crib can provide a sense of comfort and safety, while a bed might feel more open and less ‘secure.' This time period is also often when their little imaginations start really developing, and their fear of “dinosaurs in the room” or “monsters under the bed” may become prevalent. 

It may help to keep a nightlight in your toddler's room or allow a favorite toy or stuffed animal to join them in bed. It's also important to have an open and honest conversation, discussing their new fears and reassuring them that you're in the next room over.

tips to transition your toddler to a bed

How to get your toddler to stay in bed

Pick and choose which method works best for your family.

Silent return to bed method

This method teaches you to calmly return your toddler to their bed when they get out. You do not engage in conversation or negotiation and it might require some repetition. Consistency is key!

Chair method

Also known as the Camping Out method or Gradual Fading method, the Chair method is particularly beneficial with toddlers. Autumn explains that the Chair method is,“particularly beneficial for families shifting away from co-sleeping.” This method involves spending a few nights sitting beside your child instead of lying down with them. Over the course of a couple of weeks, gradually move yourself farther from their bed toward the door every few nights. Once you reach the doorway, you can transition to either a Check-In method (outlined below) or the Silent Return to Bed method mentioned earlier.

Check-in method

Another method Autumn frequently uses with toddlers or older kids is proactive check-ins. She explains, “In this approach, you inform your child in advance that you'll be checking on them periodically while they sleep. During bedtime, you might say something like, ‘I'm just going to leave the room for a moment, and then I'll be right back to say goodnight again.’” After a brief absence, return to commend your kiddo for staying quietly in their bed and mention that you'll be back in a few more minutes for another check-in. Repeat these short waits and check-ins until they fall asleep. Over the following nights, gradually increase the time between your check-ins until you are doing them only as often as you prefer, or until they are phased out entirely.

methods to keeping a toddler in their bed

Dealing with Exceptions and Special Situations

Every child is unique and not every child will respond to a typical approach. Many kids still resist staying in their own bed, even with a consistent bedtime routine and the allure of stickers.

What if my toddler still refuses to sleep in their own bed?

If your toddler still refuses to stay in their big-kid bed, it's okay. This is a new challenge and it's okay to adjust the plan as you go. You might consider co-sleeping for a short period, or using a baby gate to discourage midnight wanderings. However, it's important not to form a bad habit. Keep persevering and stay consistent.

If the baby gate doesn’t work *cough, cough* Caden who just pushed it over, then a lock on the outside of the door may be your solution. This was the method that worked for us.

My child continues to wake up. What can I do?

If your child continues to wake up frequently, it's essential to take a step back and review the overall situation. Autumn says, “It’s normal to have some nighttime wakings between sleep cycles. By working on independent sleep, you can teach your child to return to sleep without assistance.” There also may be underlying reasons why it's not working. Autumn explains, “First, we’d want to review their schedule and make sure that the wakeups aren’t due to a schedule that needs shifting.” 

In other situations, toddlers could be coming out of their bed because they are seeking additional comfort from you or their surroundings (oftentimes, your room!). If this is the case, Autumn suggests proactively putting a plan in place. The strategy for handling overnight awakenings is aligned with the bedtime plan. For instance, if you are implementing the chair method at bedtime, you would return to the same location in the middle of the night and remain there until your child falls back asleep. If you are employing the silent return, you would follow the same approach during nighttime awakenings. These approaches can be combined with ample daytime preparation, such as addressing any fears during the day or role-playing the process with stuffed animals to ensure clear expectations.

It's worth mentioning that certain factors can interfere with sleep. If your child is a mouth breather or snores while sleeping, it might be a good idea to discuss this with a pediatrician or an ENT specialist. 

My toddler is still scared. What should I do?

If your toddler is still scared, there are strategies to help alleviate their fears. Autumn suggests, “For toddlers that are afraid of the dark, it can be a good time to introduce a nightlight.” She recommends finding one with different color settings and selecting warm colors for bedtime. Colors like amber and red do not interfere with the production of melatonin, our sleep hormone, and further supports sleep.

Nightmares are another common fear and this is the time when toddlers may need extra comfort and reassurance. During the day, try to tackle these fears by practicing coping strategies. Autumn advises, “This could include things like squeezing a stuffed animal, practicing deep breathing, or imagining happy places.” Depending on the age of the child, you can also introduce muscle relaxation techniques or guided meditations through apps like Calm or Moshi. By building and strengthening these tools, your child can learn to self-soothe and handle their fears independently, contributing to a more restful night's sleep. 

How do you break the co-sleeping habit?

Breaking the co-sleeping habit is a gradual process and requires patience and planning. Autumn explains, “Making a plan for how to transition away from co-sleeping is of utmost importance.” Various methods can be used to make this transition smoother. For example, parents can start by “camping out” in their child's room, gradually moving further away until the child can sleep independently. Another approach is the ‘chair method,' where parents sit in a chair in their little one's bedroom until they fall asleep, gradually reducing their presence. Autumn reinforces, “Once we get further away and parents are ready to leave the room, then we can explore a range of check-in options to help the child fall asleep fully independently.”

Additional resources for parents

There are tons of resources available for parents struggling to keep their toddlers in bed. Autumn suggests incorporating bedtime stories into your child's bedtime routine. This can bring comfort to children and help them have an easier transition to independent sleeping. Choose books that offer relatable narratives that can reassure your child by associating their big-kid bed with positive, comforting thoughts.

Autumn's favorite bedtime books include:

  1. Tell me Something Happy Before I Go To Sleep by Joyce Dunbar
  2. Sleep In Your Big Kid Bed by Amanda Hembrow
  3. Benny Goes to Bed By Himself by Jonathan Kushnir
  4. I Sleep In My Big Bed by Little Grasshopper Books

For parents needing more personalized assistance, Autumn's virtual sleep consultation services provide individualized support to help your family implement these sleep changes. She definitely helped me!

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how to keep a toddler in bed


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