Calling out and getting up: why children do it

Sometimes children call out or get out of bed because they genuinely need your attention. For example, your child might need to go to the toilet, or there might be a spider on the wall.

Also, from around nine months, children can begin to develop separation anxiety, so they might want you to stay with them at bedtime. Or sometimes children want to stay up with the family.

And sometimes 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 you can do about calling out and getting up

If you think your child is calling out or getting out of bed because he needs your help or something is wrong, go in to him.

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.

Sometimes children get up or call out as a way of keeping their parents around at bedtime. If this sounds like your child, and you’re happy to resettle her each time she asks for you, that’s OK. But if this is something you’d like to try to change, start by helping your child settle with a 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 strategies described 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 each night before bed
  • avoiding loud or boisterous play before bedtime
  • avoiding screen-based activity before bedtime – that is, avoiding TV, computer games or 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 him 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 slowly make bedtime earlier. For example, make your child’s bedtime earlier by 15 minutes every two nights until you get to the bedtime you want.

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’.

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.

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 she goes to bed. You can remind your child that she had a good dinner and should be able to wait until breakfast.

Dealing with calling out

When you say goodnight to your child, explain that it’s sleep time. That means it’s time for him to stop calling out and time for you to stop responding if he calls out.

You might find your child still calls out. If you’re aiming for a bedtime routine that helps your child settle without calling out for you, you need to be consistent about not responding.

It can be hard, especially if your child comes up with all sorts of reasons you should come in. But if, for example, you’re comfortable that she’s had enough to drink, it’s OK not to take in an extra drink of water. If she’s already had her bedtime stories, it’s OK not to go in with another book.

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, he must give it to you. It’s time for him to settle without 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 her 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, he’ll be more likely to keep protesting until you come.

Dealing with getting out of bed

If your child is getting 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 try to be consistent.

Strategy 1: return your child to bed

  1. Say once, ‘Summer, do not come out again. Please stay in your bed’. Use your child’s name when you speak to her.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 if returning your child to bed is likely to make you very angry or upset.

Strategy 2: restrict your child to the bedroom

  1. Say once, ‘Ishan, do not come out again. Please stay in your bed’. Use your child’s name when you speak to him. Return your child immediately to bed without further discussion or argument.
  2. If your child comes out of bed again, say, ‘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.
  3. Ignore any further calling out.

Here are some ideas for helping your child stay 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 you choose to close the door, it’s best to stay nearby to ensure your child’s safety.
  • Install a night-light if you’re concerned that your child might be afraid of the dark.

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.

You need to be consistent for either of the strategies above to work. If you sometimes give in to your child, you’re teaching her to be more persistent about calling out and getting out of bed. If you’re not comfortable with these strategies, 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.

What to do if your child gets very upset

Any change to a bedtime routine can be hard for children. They might not like you returning them to their rooms each time they get out of bed. Sometimes when children cry a lot they can get very red in the face, cough or even vomit.

If your child vomits, go in and comfort him, and clean up with minimal fuss. As soon as your child is clean and back 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 about changing your child’s bedtime routine.

Starting 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.