Calling out and getting out of bed are two common child and toddler sleep issues. A nightly routine – and a bit of persistence on your part – can cut down on bedtime problems.
Calling out and getting up: why children do it
Calling out and getting up out of bed can start as a way of keeping you around at bedtime.
From around nine months, children can begin to develop separation anxiety, so they might want to keep you with them at bedtime. Or sometimes children just want to stay up with the family.
If your child suddenly starts having bedtime or sleep issues after a big change or loss in his life, it might be a sign that he’s having some stress or anxiety.
What you can do about calling out and getting up
Sometimes your child might be calling out or getting out of bed because she genuinely needs something. Go in to your child if you think she needs your help or something is wrong.
If you think your child’s sleep issues are caused by stress or anxiety, or if your child seems very afraid or worried about night-time or about separating from you, it’s a good idea to see a health professional. You could start by talking to your GP or child and family health nurse.
But if you think your child is getting up or calling out as a way of keeping you around, you can take four key steps:
- Step 1: help your child settle by setting up a bedtime routine.
- Step 2: deal with calling out.
- Step 3: deal with getting out of bed
- Step 4: start the next day in a positive way.
Spending a little more time together with you before lights out might help children whose bedtime issues are caused by separation or other kinds of anxiety. Most children with sleep and settling issues are likely to benefit from the bedtime strategies described below.
Step 1: set up a bedtime routine
A bedtime routine is the most important part of helping young children go to bed and settle. A basic routine involves:
- doing the same soothing things each night before bed
- avoiding loud or boisterous play before bedtime
- avoiding screen-based activity before bedtime – watching TV, playing computer games or using tablets and other handheld devices.
Here are some things to think about when you’re setting up or changing a bedtime routine to deal with calling out or getting up out of bed.
Think about timing
If your child is taking a long time to fall asleep, you might be putting your child to bed too early.
Start by checking how long it takes for your child to fall asleep. If it’s more than 30 minutes, try making your child’s bedtime closer to the time your child can actually fall asleep. This will make it more likely that your child will settle for sleep.
Once your child is falling asleep regularly at a later time, you can bring it forward slowly. Move your child’s bedtime forward by 5-10 minutes each week until you get to the bedtime you want.
Note that sometimes children can feel very active and alert later in the day, so keeping your child up too late might not be a good idea.
Do a quick check before lights out
Before turning out the light, check that your child has done all the things that might cause calling out later. Has your child had a drink? Been to the toilet? Brushed teeth?
Turn on a night-light if this makes your child feel more comfortable.
Remind your child of what you expect
Before you leave the bedroom, you can say that you want your child to stay quietly in bed – for example, ‘It’s time to rest quietly in bed’. Explain that you won’t be answering if your child calls out.
Next you can say ‘Goodnight’ or ‘I love you, sleep tight’ (or whatever you usually say when your child goes to bed). And then walk out of the bedroom.
Step 2: deal with calling out
After you’ve set up your new bedtime routine, you might find your child still calls out. The first and most important thing is to ignore all further requests for attention – do not respond.
It’s hard because your child might come up with all sorts of reasons you should come in. But if you want this technique to work, you’ll have to stay firm and ignore the calling out. That means no extra drink of water, no extra bedtime story, no extra kiss and no straightening blankets if your child has got untucked. Don’t go in at all.
Try a ‘free pass’
A strategy that might work with children over three years is the ‘free pass’:
- At bedtime, issue your child with a pass that’s good for one acceptable request, like a drink of water or a kiss from mum or dad.
- Agree with your child that after the pass is used once, your child must give it to you. You won’t respond to any more requests or calling out.
- If your child asks for something that’s not acceptable – for example, an ice-cream, or staying up later – encourage your child to choose from the acceptable options you agreed on.
If you respond because your child gets louder or more demanding, your child will learn that protesting long enough and loudly enough will get your attention. In future, your child will be more likely to keep protesting until you come.
Step 3: deal with
If your child is still getting up out of bed after you’ve started the new bedtime routine, there are two strategies that can work. Choose the strategy that you feel suits you and your child the best, and stick with it.
Strategy 1: return your child to bed
- Say once, ‘Dominique, do not come out again. Please stay in your bed’.
- Return your child immediately, gently and calmly to bed. Don’t talk, make eye contact or reprimand your child in any way. Do this as many times as it takes until your child stays in bed.
- It might take many returns before your child stays in bed. If you use this option, you’ll have to be very patient. This might not be the best option for you if returning your child to bed is likely to make you very angry or upset.
Strategy 2: restrict your child to the bedroom
- Say once, ‘Dominique, do not come out again. Please stay in your bed’. Return your child immediately to bed without further discussion or argument.
- If your child comes out of bed again, say, ‘Dominique, you haven’t stayed in bed, so now I will close the door (or the gate). I will open it again when you’re staying in bed’. Return your child to bed, and shut the door.
- Ignore any further calling out.
Here are some ideas for keeping your child in the bedroom:
- Put up a child gate. Your child will still be able to get out of bed but won’t be able to come out of the bedroom.
- Close the door until your child is back in bed and stays there. If your child can open the door, consider holding the door shut until your child stops trying to get out. The advantage of holding the door is that you’re still nearby to ensure your child’s safety.
If you’re concerned that your child might be afraid of the dark, install a night-light. But if you or your child is really uncomfortable with closing the door you could try putting your child back in bed and leaving the door open, as explained above.
What to do if your child vomits
Some children get so upset about being put back in their beds or rooms that they vomit. If your child gets very upset, it’s a good idea to go in and quietly comfort her. If your child vomits, clean up with minimal attention and fuss. As soon as your child is clean and back in bed, say goodnight and walk out again.
If your child does this, it’s a good idea to have a spare set of sheets and pyjamas ready, so you can quickly change both, and keep going with the new bedtime routine.
You need to stay firm for either of these strategies to work. If you give in to your child after your child repeatedly comes out of the bedroom or protests loudly, you’re teaching your child to be more persistent. If you’re still having trouble with bedtime and you aren’t sure about what to do, talk with your GP or child and family health nurse about other ways to handle these sleep issues.
Step 4: start the next day in a positive way
You can start the next day in a positive way no matter how your child behaved the night before.
Praise your child for being quiet
If your child goes to sleep without calling out, make a point of giving praise or rewards the next morning for staying quietly in bed. You might consider celebrating with a special breakfast surprise or a phone call to a special person.
If your child is three years or older, you could try a reward chart to encourage the bedtime behaviour you want. Younger children often like a special stamp on their hand to remind them during the day what a good job they did overnight.
Don’t mention it if there was calling out
Even if your child called out the night before, try to start the next day in a positive way. The key thing is to ignore the calling out or getting up.
If you’re concerned about your child’s sleep for any reason, you should discuss your concerns with your GP or child and family health nurse. They can refer you to specialists or services in your area if needed.