Getting out of bed or calling out: why children do it
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.
Also, from around nine months, children can 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 when your child calls out or gets out of bed
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 out of bed 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 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 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 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 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 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.
If your child takes more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, try making her bedtime closer to the time she 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. They might not even seem tired. But it's best not to keep children up too late if you want them to develop good sleep habits.
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' or '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 him some brief and gentle praise - for example, 'Well done for staying in bed. You look nice and sleepy now'. You can phase out these checks as your child gets better at settling himself.
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 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 him that you're close. But if you're confident that your child has everything he needs, it's OK not go in. For example, if he's had enough to drink, it's OK not to take in an extra drink of water. If he's already had his 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 her 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 is not working, you can try restricting your child to the bedroom. You could put up a child gate, or close the bedroom door. If you choose to close the door, it's best to stay nearby to ensure your child's safety.
Before you restrict your child to the bedroom, you could say, 'If you don't stay in bed, I'll close the door (or the gate) and open it again when you're staying in bed. Would you like one more chance to have the door open?' Then close the door or gate if your child doesn't stay in bed.
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 calling out or getting out of bed.
- 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 go in every time your child calls out, or give your child what he asks for every time he gets out of bed, he's more likely to keep calling out and getting out of bed.
What to do if your child gets very upset
Your child might not like it if you don't come when she calls, or you return her to her room each time she gets out of bed. She might cry a lot, get very red in the face, cough or have a tantrum.
If your child gets very upset, you can comfort him the same way you'd comfort him during the day. When your child is calm and back in bed, remind him 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.
It can be hard not to give your child what she wants. 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.
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 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.
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.