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Nighty-Night: Tips To Get Your Kid To Stay In Bed

A consistent, structured routine, which may include incentives, can help children learn to stay in bed and get the ZZZs they need

Young child in bed reading at night

Parents of toddlers and preschoolers know the struggle. You say goodnight and then count the minutes — or maybe seconds — before your little one cries out for you or comes wandering out of their bedroom.

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Then come the demands and negotiations: I neeeeed to tell you something important! I’m thirsty! Can I get one more hug?

If you’re in a nightly battle to get your kiddo to sleep, what can you do to make them stay in bed? Pediatric sleep specialist Jason Sherman, DO, has some tips to bring some peace to bedtime.

Why won’t kids go to sleep?

Children are naturally curious. When they go to bed, they figure they must be missing out on something. After all, you’re still up, right?

“Kids want to explore and spend time with people,” explains Dr. Sherman. “But what children want and what they need are two different things — and what they need at night is sleep. Lots of it, too.”

It’s recommended that toddlers (aged 12 to 24 months) get 11 to 14 hours of sleep a day, including naps. Preschoolers aged 3 to 5 years should try to get 10 to 13 hours of shut-eye a day.

That rest time is critical for your child’s growth and development. Catching enough ZZZs can improve their attention, behavior, learning ability, memory and physical health. It’s bound to make them less cranky, too.

Tips to get kids to stay in bed

Adding structure to bedtime or a dose of positive reinforcement may be all that you need to keep your little one between the sheets at night, says Dr. Sherman.

Here are seven tips (or tricks) to try.

Stick to a routine

Set a regular bedtime for your toddler and be consistent about sending them to bed at that time. Children with consistent bedtimes are more likely to get sufficient sleep and less likely to show signs of exhaustion (like irritability and clinginess).

Use the hour before bedtime to get them ready to sleep, says Dr. Sherman. Build the routine around calming activities, like:

  • Listening to quiet music.
  • Reading a book.
  • Taking a warm bath or shower.

The last few minutes of quiet time activity should take place in the room where your child sleeps. It’s important for younger children to get into bed awake and learn to fall asleep there by themselves.

Try to keep them away from watching TV (or other devices) or playing video games. Lights from the screen may “trick” their brain into thinking it’s daytime, making it more difficult to settle down and sleep even if they’re physically tired.

It’s best to avoid active play just before bed, too, as any stimulating activities may energize your child, which isn’t the goal here.

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Introduce the ‘Sleep Fairy’

The Tooth Fairy isn’t the only magical character flying around at night. There’s also the Sleep Fairy, who makes a habit of visiting kids who stay in bed and occasionally leaves a reward for that behavior.

The gift doesn’t need to be extravagant. A quarter or small trinket will do. Better yet, collect small “Sleep Fairy” objects in a jar or box that can lead to a larger reward.

“You can put the jar next to the bedside to remind them of the reward that comes in the morning,” suggests Dr. Sherman. “When it’s full, your child earns a fun activity, like going to the park or an arcade.”

The beauty of the Sleep Fairy is that it takes the parent out of the picture. It turns into a transactional relationship between your kid and a watchful fairy who knows when they’re sleeping.

“It may not work instantly, but this is a great method for the imaginative child,” notes Dr. Sherman. “Parents know their child best and can anticipate if they’ll respond to this method.”

Sticker charts

Rewards help encourage kids. If the Sleep Fairy doesn’t fly in your household, consider using a bedtime chart involving a sticker system.

The process is simple: If your child goes to bed and stays there all night, they get a sticker in the morning. Turn it into a game, where a certain number of stickers leads to a special activity or treat.

An incentive-based system works well with strong-willed children, adds Dr. Sherman. It gives them a goal and focus. Through the process, they’ll learn to understand the upside of doing the right thing.

Check-in with a second ‘good night’

Does your child say, “Please don’t leave, I’m scared!” at bedtime? Promising to stop back in their bedroom can reassure your child that they’ll be safe, which can help them relax and fall asleep.

So, after tucking your child in, let them know you’ll stick your head in for a second goodnight in a certain number of minutes. (SPOILER ALERT: Your child will probably still be awake when you return.)

If they’ve been lying quietly in bed, you may elect to reward them (like using the sticker chart).

Gradually delay the return visit. Over time, your child will get more comfortable and start to fall asleep more quickly. “Soon, your child will be drowsy and half-asleep for the second goodnight,” says Dr. Sherman.

And when they’re regularly asleep for that second visit, consider it a parental victory.

‘Big kid’ reminders

Younger children respond well to reminders that they aren’t babies anymore, says Dr. Sherman.

Reminders along the lines of, “You’re a big kid now — and big kids sleep in their own beds,” can guide them toward acting a little more grown up. It also can help them feel pride in acting a little older.

Family pictures

If your toddler is nervous about being left alone, reminders that you’re there for them can be helpful. Dr. Sherman suggests keeping a picture of the family in your toddler’s room.

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Remind them that if they feel alone, they can look at the picture or give it a kiss. “Tell your child they can talk to the picture about what is going on and then, go back to sleep — and then, in the morning, you can talk about it together,” says Dr. Sherman.

A wake-up clock

If your child gets up repeatedly during the night or rolls out of bed too early, a wake-up clock (or toddler alarm clock) can cue them on when it’s time to get out of bed.

These devices are ideal for children who don’t quite understand the concept of time and the reality that 4 a.m. isn’t the moment to rise and shine. Some clocks use colors to let children know when it’s an acceptable time to wake.

“Tell your child, ‘OK, when it’s time to get out of bed, the clock will turn green — so, wait until then to get up,’” Dr. Sherman advises.

This method isn’t for all kids. It tends to work best for those who like structure and rules.

Final thoughts

No matter what approach you take, remember that consistency is key. “Changing any habit takes time,” emphasizes Dr. Sherman. “Your child will learn new sleep habits if you communicate your expectations and stick to the plan.”

The payoff should be a good night’s sleep for your child and a relaxing night for you.

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