Getting out of bed or calling out: why children do it
Children call out or get out of bed for many reasons.
Sometimes children call out or get out of bed because they genuinely need attention. For example, your child might need to go to the toilet, or there might be a spider on the wall.
Sometimes they do it because they’ve learned something new as a natural part of development. For example, they’re big enough to climb out of the cot. Likewise, from around 6-7 months, many children develop separation anxiety. Because of this, they might want you to stay with them at bedtime. Or sometimes children want to stay up with the family.
Children can also have trouble settling back into their sleep routines after illness.
Or children might suddenly start having bedtime or sleep issues after a big change or loss in their lives. This can be a sign that they’re having some stress or anxiety.
What to do when children call out or get out of bed
If you think your child is calling out or getting out of bed because they need your help or something is wrong, go in to your child.
If you think your child is calling out or getting out of bed as a way of keeping you around at bedtime and you’re happy to keep resettling them, that’s OK.
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 calling out or getting out of bed is something you’d like to change, start by helping your child settle with a regular bedtime routine. Then deal with the calling out or getting out of bed calmly and consistently.
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 routine tips below.
Setting 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 at the same time each night before bed
- avoiding loud or boisterous play before bedtime
- avoiding screen-based activity in the hour before bedtime – that is, avoiding TV, computer games or tablets and other 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 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.
If your child takes more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, try making your child’s bedtime closer to the time your child can actually fall asleep. This is called bedtime fading, and it will make it more likely that your child will settle to sleep rather than getting up and down.
Once your child is falling asleep regularly at a later time, you can slowly make the bedtime earlier. For example, make your child’s bedtime earlier by 15 minutes every 3 nights until you get to the bedtime you want.
If your child starts calling out or getting out of bed again at a particular time, you might need to keep that time for another few nights before gradually making it earlier.
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’. You can also say, ‘I’ll come back and check on you once you’re quiet’.
Next you can say ‘Goodnight’, ‘I love you, sleep tight’ or whatever you usually say when your child goes to bed. And then walk out of the bedroom.
Praise your child for being quiet
If you go back to check on your child, give them some brief and gentle praise – for example, ‘Well done for staying in bed. You’re doing a good job of quiet resting’. You can phase out these checks as your child gets better at settling themselves.
Aim for consistency
Bedtime routines work best when they’re used consistently by all the grown-ups who settle your child.
Sometimes children say they’re hungry at bedtime. It can help to plan the evening meal for a time that means your child is satisfied but not too full when they go to bed. If your child still says they’re hungry, you could try offering a larger dinner or a snack closer to bedtime the next night. Then you can remind your child that they’ve eaten well and should be able to wait until breakfast.
Dealing with calling out and getting out of bed
Even with a positive bedtime routine, you might find your child still calls out or gets out of bed. If you’re aiming to help your child learn to settle without calling out or getting out of bed, you need to be consistent in responding to this behaviour.
If your child calls out, you can call back briefly to reassure your child that you’re close. But if you’re confident that your child has everything they need, it’s OK not to go in. For example, if your child has had enough to drink, it’s OK not to take in an extra drink of water. If your child has already had their bedtime stories, it’s OK not to go in with another book.
If your child gets out of bed, you can say something like ‘It’s time to sleep. Please stay in your bed’. Then return your child gently and calmly to bed, without talking or scolding. Do this as many times as it takes until your child stays in bed.
Some children come out of their bedrooms over and over. If it feels like returning your child to the bedroom repeatedly isn’t working, you can put up a child gate. If your child keeps coming out, you could say, ‘If you don’t stay in bed, I’ll close the gate and open it again when you’re staying in bed. Would you like one more chance?’ Then close the gate if your child doesn’t stay in bed.
Try a ‘free pass’
A strategy that might work with children over 3 years is the ‘free pass’:
- At bedtime, give your child 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 they use the pass once, they must give it to you. It’s time for your child to settle without any calling out or getting out of bed.
- If your child doesn’t use the pass, they can use it the next day or another time for a special activity you’ve agreed to beforehand.
- If your child asks for something that’s not acceptable – for example, an ice-cream, or staying up later – your child must hand in the pass and can’t use it later.
What to do if children get very upset
Your child might not like it if you don’t come when they call, or you return them to their room each time they get out of bed. Your child might cry a lot, get very red in the face, cough or have a tantrum.
If your child gets very upset, you can comfort your child the same way you’d comfort them during the day. When your child is calm and back in bed, remind your child gently about staying in bed, say goodnight, and walk out again.
If this keeps happening or you’re worried about your child, it’s best to speak with your GP or child and family health nurse for advice. They can help you find specialists or services in your area if needed.
If you feel these strategies aren’t right for you and your child, it might be best to go back to what you were doing before. You can try again if and when you and your child are ready.
Starting the next day in a positive way
Make a point of praising or rewarding your child the next morning for staying quietly in bed. You could even celebrate with a special breakfast surprise or a phone call to a special person.
If your child is 3 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.
Even if there was calling out or getting up at night, you don’t need to talk about it the next morning. Try to start the next day in a positive way.