If your child’s habit of getting up or calling out from bed is causing conflict and making nights unpleasant, you can:
- help your child settle by setting up a bedtime routine
- use some strategies to deal with calling out or getting out of bed.
Of course, calling out or getting out of bed is not always a problem. Your child might genuinely need something. Go in to your child if you think your help is needed or something is wrong.
Why children call out and get up
This behaviour can begin as a way of keeping you around. From around nine months, children can begin to develop separation anxiety. So they might want to keep mum or dad with them at bedtime. If your child is under two years of age, you might find our Guide to solving sleep problems helpful.
If bedtime struggles suddenly appear following a significant change or loss in your child’s life, it might be a sign your child is experiencing some stress or anxiety. In this instance, you need to work on relieving the stress in your child’s life.
It might be helpful to speak to a professional if your child is experiencing a high level of anxiety or fear about night-time or separating from you.
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. Also, most children with sleep and settling issues are likely to benefit from the bedtime strategies described below.
Setting up a bedtime routine
A bedtime routine is the most important part of any effort to help 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 TV.
Think about timing
When you start your bedtime routine is important. If your child is taking a long time to fall asleep, you might be putting your child to bed too early. Try making bedtime later so that your child is sleepier going into bed. This way you maximise your chance of success in helping your child settle for sleep.
If this new time is too late, bring it forward 5-10 minutes each week until you get to your child’s ideal bedtime.
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:
- Say that you want your child to stay quietly in bed until sleep comes.
- Explain that you will not be answering if your child calls out.
- Say ‘Goodnight’ or ‘I love you, sleep tight’ (or whatever you usually say when your child goes to bed).
Then walk out of the bedroom.
Sometimes children and grown-ups get their second wind late in the day. This surge in alertness is also referred to as the ‘forbidden zone’. In some children, it can bring intense activity and alertness that lead to resistance to going to bed.
If your child calls out
Do not respond
This is hard, but it’s important to ignore all further requests for attention.
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.
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.
Try a ‘free pass’
A strategy that might work with children over three 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. Any further requests or calling out will get no response.
- If your child asks for something that’s not acceptable (like an ice-cream, or staying up later), encourage your child to choose from the acceptable options you agreed on.
If your child gets out of bed
There are two strategies that can work. Choose the strategy 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 have not stayed in bed, so now I will close the door (or the gate). I will open it again when you are staying in bed’. Return your child to bed, and shut the door.
- Ignore any further calling out.
To keep your child in the bedroom, you can:
- Erect 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, you could consider holding the door shut until your child stops trying to get out. The advantage of holding the door is that you are 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.
Restricting a child to the bedroom can be a better option if tempers are likely to be frayed. It’s helpful if there’s a risk that you might lash out at your child through frustration and anger. But this might not be your preferred option if you are uncomfortable with closing the door.
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.
Sometimes children will cry to the point of vomiting. If this happens, come in and clean up with minimal attention and fuss. Reprimanding or punishing won’t help. Try not to talk much at all, avoid eye contact, and do not kiss or cuddle your child. As soon as your child is clean and back in bed, say goodnight and walk out again.
The next morning
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 or older, you could try a star chart to encourage the bedtime behaviour you want.
Don’t mention it if there was calling out
Try to start the next day in a positive way even if there was calling out the night before. You won’t change your child’s behaviour by talking about the problem at this point.
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.