Recently a coworker asked me about if I ever dealt with my 3-year-old waking up many times throughout the night. We did! And it made me realize that perhaps we weren’t the only ones who dealt with this. I’m about to tell you what I believe should practically become a patented method for resolving this issue.
Why is this happening?
These are dark times! My daughter was a perfect sleeper after sleep training. Even in unusual situations like hotels and visiting family, she slept like a champ. When she turned 3, it suddenly changed. I am sure there is some brain development thing happening but the general vibe was that she discovered she could control this nighttime part of the world by wandering into our room whenever she woke up. Many times we woke up to this horror-movie-like scene of a small child, breathing heavily into our faces, staring at us while we slept. (I think sometimes she was nervous to wake us up! She should be!)
Her reasons for waking up were practically nonsense. Sometimes potty, which is legitimate. But most of the time it would be something absurd, like to ask about why the winter is cold or where we put her art project. Most of the time she would obviously um and uhh about why she was up and then invent a reason right there on the spot. Our stress only grew with how ridiculous her rationale was — how is she not getting this?
Aside: There was a little view into toddler “stress” that created a tad bit of empathy in my angry, angry, tired, exhausted brain… often her reasons had to do with losing a sticker or forgetting to clean up part of her room. This is what keeps a toddler up at night? It actually caused me to consider how absurd it is that I remain awake at night over an inconsequential conversation with my general contractor.
Some of our friends recommended basically Sleep Training: Toddler Edition. One of them literally reversed the door knob in their child’s door so they could lock it from the outside. We actually went and bought the Door Monkey thing which achieves a similar thing. But we never used it! Because my plan worked sooner.
There are some obvious downsides to locking the door. Paramount is that in the case of a fire or a real emergency, you’re locking them in their room. Horrifying thought. I couldn’t live with that. But there’s also the fact that they’d get the real feeling that they’re “trapped” once they discover the door is locked for the first time. I didn’t want her to have that feeling. But maybe all of these risks are minimal — to each their own!
Frankly, I don’t know what else people do. We definitely looked. “Rewards?” That’s part of my method. But I don’t think that works on its own.
The breakthrough for me was to interrupt my daughter’s habit by changing the script a little bit. In fact, she’s allowed out of her bed. She just has to call an adult into the room first. Then, we’d determine if her reason for waking up merits leaving the bed. Do you see? So now it’s not up to her if she gets out of bed. It’s on our terms. So her old habit was 1) wake up 2) leave the room 3) do whatever I want. New habit is 1) wake up 2) call a parent into my room 3) share the issue and do what the parent allows.
I’m not like a psychological genius or anything but this felt to me like one of those mental tricks like BJ Fogg’s idea of “just flossing one tooth.” (that worked for me)
Putting it into practice
It’s a little complicated to reinforce this change. And actually, in dissecting this change, it helped us understand why this is hard for a toddler to wrap their heads around. How are they supposed to know what is a good enough reason to get up at night? They’re only 3.
To be more specific, the rule becomes: You are not allowed to get out of bed unless it’s an “emergency.” If it’s an emergency, you can call mom and dad into the room to help you. We are talking about toddler emergencies here (potty, diaper leak, bad dream) but also real ones (a fire).
- So, the first step is explain the rule. Talk it over with them a lot, get them ready for it, let them ask questions. Review it when you’re driving. Use the same key word like “emergency” so that it’s really clear: things are either an emergency or they’re not.
- Next, we are going to reinforce it during the bedtime route. Each night before bed, we would play a game where we’d talk about different scenarios and she would have to identify if it’s an emergency. We’d act this all out while she’s laying down in the bed and she’d even mime the reactions. We could come up with all sorts of absurd things to make her laugh (what if you wake up and smell cheese?) but really the point is, only a handful of things you decide are emergencies (potty, smoke/fire/alarm). If it’s an emergency, her answer is “I can say, ‘mama, papa, I need help!'” For everything else, the right answer is “you can go back to sleep” or “we can take care of it in the morning.” Use real situations to help her understand. This was a chance to clarify that whatever absurd thing she woke us up about other nights was not an emergency (like “we forgot to put away the puzzle” or “my butt itches”). This ended up becoming the highlight of bedtime so I think it really engaged her brain on it.
- To prevent her from immediately waking up moments after putting her to sleep, there’s another new addition to the bedtime routine: the 5-minute check-in. You’re basically going to assure her that you’ll come back to check on her in 5 minutes. Again, getting out of bed is on my terms, not hers. So, there’s no reason to get out of bed right now. If you don’t have everything you need or are having trouble going to sleep, I’m coming right back. So just stick around! “OK, do you have everything you need? Good. Go to sleep now, don’t leave or call for us. We will come back in in 5 minutes to check on you.” Mostly she would be asleep but sometimes she would potty at the 5 min check-in.
- Ok, now what happens if she still wakes us up? A few options. If she got out of bed herself, you bring her back to the bed, and ask her to do it the way we practiced. Again, reinforcing that she must call us into the room first by instructing her to do it over. If she didn’t get out of her bed, she hollered to bring you in, now you have the conversation: “Hi, what’s the emergency?” and help her with the problem if it’s an emergency. If it’s not — sometimes she would sheepishly admit it wasn’t — then we “can take care of it in the morning” or just tell her it isn’t an emergency and go back to sleep. There were a few times where that conversation ended in tears but I think that was mostly part of her understanding the rule.
- One more mitigating factor is preventing wake-up reasons before she even hollers. As really prevalent excuses come up, we would make a solution she could do on her own. Thirsty: a water bottle sits bedside. Nose is running: kleenex is here. Lost teddy: piggy is waiting here as a backup. Lips are chapped: chapstick on the nightstand. Too dark: nightlight.
- Lastly, rewards. We made a tracker and would reward her for streaks. First it was 3 nights, then 5 nights, then a week. Each streak got her a Tonie or matchbox car.
This honestly only took a few weeks to begin working! And a lot of the scaffolding, like the 5-minute check-in, the “pretend game” eventually started to naturally phase out. She actually became excited to learn what was an emergency and what wasn’t! And excited to reach her streaks, bragging to us about how she didn’t get out of bed all night.
I hope this works for you! Let me know!