Having just hosted my 20-month old nephew on an overnight visit, I am reminded that toddlers can pop out of bed (even leaving the room!) without the skills to go back to sleep. I asked toddler sleep expert, Nicole, to weigh in on the little kid that won’t stay in his bed at night. Nicole Johnson is the Lead Baby Sleep Consultant and owner of The Baby Sleep Site and she shares her ideas on this jack-in-the-box behavior below. Stay in your bed, toddler!
If you’ve transitioned a toddler from a crib to a big kid bed, then you know that lots of fun stuff comes with that transition. New sheets! New bed! Not to mention the fact that it’s a classic “big boy” or “big girl” milestone.
But here’s what they don’t tell you about that big kid bed: your big kid can climb right out. And that can make for a whole new set of bedtime problems – namely, what we at The Baby Sleep Site call The Jack-in-the-Box Syndrome. For some families, jack-in-the-box behavior is a short-lived phenomenon. Other parents, however, spend months – even years! – dealing with a jack-in-the-box child.
So, why do our little ones spring out of bed like tiny wind-up toys? And most importantly, what can we parents do to keep them firmly tucked in bed?
The Jack-In-The-Box Syndrome (or, Why Your Toddler Won’t Stay In Bed)
If you think about it, the jack-in-the-box “dance” that many parents and toddlers/preschoolers do makes perfect sense, from a child’s perspective. For your toddler, bedtime is relatively dull. She knows that mom and dad are no doubt partying hard in the living room – so why wouldn’t she want to join them?
And parents often unwittingly encourage jack-in-the-box behavior by their responses to the behavior. If your toddler gets another story, or an extra bedtime snuggle, or even a little bit of extra attention, every time he gets up, then he has incentive to keep doing it.
Of course, we have to remember that child development plays into this, too. Many toddlers go through a few bouts of separation anxiety (namely during the 18-month sleep regression and the 2-year sleep regression). Some toddlers also struggle mightily with nightmares and night terrors
5 tips to help your little one stay in bed
So how can you help your jack-in-the-box toddler actually stay put at bedtime? Try these 5 strategies tonight:
1. Assess the Schedule
Sometimes, toddlers hop out of bed every 10 seconds simply because they’re not tired. So take a look at your toddler’s schedule – is bedtime too early? If your toddler still takes an afternoon nap, then bedtime shouldn’t be happening before 7 or 8 p.m. And speaking of naps – how close is that nap to bedtime? Your toddler needs at least 5 hours of wake time between the end of the afternoon nap and bedtime.
However, the reverse is also true – sometimes, toddlers are sleepless at night because they’re actually overtired. If your toddler is done napping, or is in the midst of a nap transition, from one nap to none, you’ll need to do an earlier bedtime – aim for 7 p.m. or so.
2. Institute a strong bedtime routine
Toddlers thrive on routine – particularly sleep routines. A strong, consistent bedtime routine will do wonders for helping your toddler understand that it’s time to settle in and go to sleep. Be sure that your routine isn’t too long (15-30 minutes is perfectly sufficient) and that it’s not too stimulating (no tickle-fights before bed!). Also make sure that your routine is, you know…routine! You need to consistently do the same thing each night in order for it to become routine for your toddler.
3. Try a sticker chart
It’s incredible what a toddler will do for a sticker! If bedtime drama and jack-in-the-box behavior is an issue in your home, try a sticker chart. Maybe your toddler gets to put a sticker on the chart before bed if she is cooperative during the bedtime routine, and then another sticker on the chart before breakfast if she stays in bed all night long.
4. Consider using the door as an immediate consequence
Sometimes, your toddler’s jack-in-the-box behavior will be due to real anxiety or perhaps a nightmare; in those cases, you’ll obviously want to comfort your toddler and help him feel safe. However, more often, repeated jack-in-the-box behavior is more of a discipline issue. For this reason, some families find it helpful to respond with consequences. Remember, to be effective, the consequences of your toddler’s behavior need to be immediate – threatening ‘no TV tomorrow’ after your toddler gets out of bed for the fifteenth time isn’t effective, since the consequence is delayed.
Instead, some parents use the bedroom door as a sort of consequence – mom or dad may leave the bedroom door open 90 degrees, on the condition that their toddler stays in bed. When toddler gets up, the bedroom door closes to 45 degrees. If toddler gets up again, the bedroom door is closed all the way for 1 or 2 minutes, at which point the whole process starts all over again. (Note that this tip isn’t for everyone; some parents feel this is too harsh, and not all toddlers respond well. Use your judgment in determining if this would work for your toddler.)
5. Employ the Silent Return to Bed
Even if you tweak your toddler’s schedule, implement a great bedtime routine, and provide incentives in the form of stickers to encourage your toddler to stay in bed, you will no doubt have some jack-in-the-box moments here and there. This is just to be expected – toddlers love to test boundaries, after all! In this case, we recommend that you try the ‘Silent Return to Bed’ – that is, when your toddler wanders out of his room, silently walk him back, tuck him in, and leave. You want these interactions to be as boring as possible – no threatening, no bargaining, no discussing. This will help discourage your toddler from repeat attempts to engage with you by getting out of bed. We find that if parents are consistent in doing this, it can significantly reduce jack-in-the-box behavior relatively quickly.
Finally, keep in mind that jack-in-the-box behavior can be a sign of a larger sleep problem. If your small person pops out of bed constantly, wakes up multiple times per night, doesn’t nap well, and is up at the crack of dawn, you most likely need to help your toddler learn to fall asleep (and stay asleep) independently.
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- Download 5 Ways To Help Your Child Sleep Through The Night for FREE
Parents from all over the world visit The Baby Sleep Site each month to find solutions for their children’s sleep problems. Visit today, and download a copy of our free guide, 5 Ways To Help Your Child Sleep Through The Night. You CAN reclaim your sleep…and we can help!
Nicole Johnson is a married mother of two wonderful boys and owner of The Baby Sleep Site®. When her eldest son was born, he had a lot of sleep problems – he would wake every one or two hours, all night long! She got busy and thoroughly researched literature and scientific reports until she became an expert in sleep methods, scheduling routines, baby developmental needs, and more. She overcame her son’s sleeping issues in a way that matched her own parenting style, and knew it was her mission to help other tired parents “find their child’s sleep”. If you have your own sleep issues, maybe she can help you, too.