Q. Recently, we switched my almost-three-year-old to a “big-girl bed.” My one fear was that she’d start coming into our room in the middle of the night—and that is exactly what has happened. How do we nip this habit in the bud?
A. It is not at all unusual for toddlers—recently liberated from crib to bed—to start wandering at night. Fearless explorers that they are, they’re determined to exercise their newfound freedom and prolong their daytime fun. There’s a learning curve here for both of you. For you, moving your daughter to a bed means establishing and communicating a new set of bedtime rules. For your daughter, moving to a bed means adjusting to a big change in her night-time routine.
Look at this switch from your daughter’s perspective: She may love her new bed and enjoy feeling like a “big girl.” But her bed is also new and unfamiliar, and perhaps not as cozy as her crib. When she wakes (as we all do in the middle of the night) she can’t rely on her old familiar crib to help her fall back asleep. There are no “walls” around her to make her feel contained, her blankets and sheets have changed, and the view is different too. When it’s night-time and she feels unsure in her big girl bed, you’re the one she wants for reassurance. And all she has to do is simply stroll down the hall to reach her goal—YOU.
If you want to put an end to these night-time visits, the key is sensitivity plus consistency. At bedtime, acknowledge that it is a big change to be sleeping in a bed, but remind her that the rule is that she stays in her bed all through the night.
If she does get out of her bed during the night, gently take her by the hand and walk her back to her room. Tuck her in, but do not sing, rub her back, tell her a story, lay down with her, or do anything that would reward or prolong the interaction. Try not to even talk very much, except to repeat the rule: At night, the rule is that you stay in your own bed. I will walk you back to your room and tuck you in. You are safe and I love you. See you in the morning.
The following strategies can help your daughter learn to soothe herself back to sleep during this transition:
- At bedtime, talk about what she can do to help herself fall back asleep during the night: You can cuddle your bear, you can rub your blanket, you can think about all the fun things we did today.
- Use bedrails. Bedrails give children the illusion of the “walls” they had when they were in the crib and can feel cozy for little ones making the transition.
- If your child doesn’t already use a “lovey”, have her choose a new stuffed animal to help her with the transition. Allow your daughter to choose, within reason, a stuffed animal “that will help you sleep all through the night.” Remind her at bedtime that this is her “sleepy bear” and if she wakes up, all she has to do is cuddle him and that can help her fall back asleep. Include your child’s stuffed animal in all her bedtime routines like stories, lullaby, and tucking-in at night and naptimes so she grows to associate it with comfort and security.
- Try using a night-light. If you are not already, use a dim night-light in your child’s room. When she wakes, she will be able to see her room, get her bearings, and hopefully feel secure enough to go back to sleep on her own.
- Give her lots of encouragement. Putting oneself back to sleep is an important (and sometimes tough) skill to learn. It’s one your daughter will practice all her life. When she does sleep through the night in her own bed, acknowledge this as the accomplishment it is: You should be so proud of yourself—you were able to sleep all night in your own bed.