What To Do About a Toddler Leaving Their Bed at Night

Solving toddler sleep problems

A reader asks:

"My daughter is 2-years-old and dad and I take turns with bedtime. We do the routine of bath, pajamas, books, and then we lay with her until she falls asleep and leave the room. We have come a long way to get this far and we are ready to get her to sleep on her own next. (Especially with a newborn on the way!) Once asleep, she usually sleeps through the night for about 11 hours, sometimes wakes up once and we then lay down with her and she falls right asleep again.

"We have a baby gate on the door for safety because we have a wood stove. So my question is, do we get her and put her back in her bed when she is up standing at the gate? Or do we leave her there and wait until she crawls back in bed... or what?"

Well, there are a couple of issues here with your situation, so let's play them out.

You've probably told her a million times that she needs to be in bed and you've probably physically put her there just as many times. She knows that's where sleep is supposed to happen, but it doesn't sound like the habit is there firmly enough if she's hanging out at the gate. Chances are, she does one of two things. She either gets weary of standing at the gate and returns to her bed eventually (in which case I would do nothing since she handles the situation on her own effectively) or she falls asleep on the floor by the gate. That's pretty common. So, from a parental standpoint, while not perfect, it's still acceptable. For now...

One of the great things about being a parent, though, is our ability to start thinking ahead. We get better and better at this as we make mistakes that have lasting consequences and, personally, I think this is just as much to blame for the Terrible Twos as our child's behavioral stage is. We're just not as good at thinking ahead in the toddler years and we want sleep/quiet/sanity right now!

So thinking for right now, she's safe. She can't get out of the gate and there is no real harm done by her sleeping on the floor. In fact, sleeping on the uncomfortable floor where she might get cold is one of those natural consequences that might motivate her to hightail it back to the bed.

Possible Problems

Thinking ahead, there are a few things that could be a problem:

  • She can't climb over or pull the gate down now, but she might be able to do so in the very near future. (Think ahead to how you will handle this problem in the future if it persists -- do you want to put a lock on her door?)
  • If she establishes a habit of falling asleep at the gate, she'll have that association and you'll have to work with her to break it eventually or deal with it for as long as it may last. (Better to deal with it now than later when you have another baby on the scene.)
  • She's close to potty training age and while she is probably wearing a diaper to bed now, eventually she'll be in underwear and may wet the bed. It's way easier to protect a mattress than an entire floor area (though disposable training pants could solve that issue).
  • Lastly is the message that it sends. If you tell her with your words that she has to go to bed and that her bed is for sleeping but you tell her with your actions that it's fine as long as she's in her room and not making a scene, then she's getting a mixed message.

Some parents are totally fine with the child being in her room, even though not in bed, and it works for their families. But my worry would be that while she's 2 now and falls asleep pretty quickly when she's older she may decide that since she only has to be in her room and she doesn't have to go to bed, that she can just stay up and play in her room. As she gets older and older, if that is still the message she gets, she may be one of those kids who is deprived of sleep because she has so much other more interesting stuff to do in her room and she'll never take bedtime seriously. (Trust me, this is a very real concern even into the teen years, so getting healthy sleep associations going now does matter.)

So, if I were you, I would go ahead and put her back in her bed each time instead of letting her stand at the gate. Not only will you be establishing a better sleep habit and association for her, but when the day comes and it's time to take the gate down because she can get past it, you'll feel more so much more secure knowing that she stays in her bed at night on her own. She'll also be able to set a good example for her little brother or sister and that might make bedtime easier this next go around. You certainly don't want two gate-sleepers. If it makes her feel more secure, though, I would suggest moving her bed closer to the gate/door, but not close enough that she can use the bed to launch over the gate to freedom.

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