”You CAN sleep train your toddler.


We all know that toddlers like to push our parental buttons.

This typically happens at bedtime or in the middle of the night when everybody is exhausted and desperate for sleep. Luckily, there’s a fix! The ‘Four R’s’ are a great strategy to use for toddlers and preschoolers who are in a bed and who have a tendency to get out of their bed. For these parents, this might just be your saviour, so read on!

The four R’s in a nutshell:

1. Role-play

2. Rewards

3. Rules

4. Returns

This strategy will help any parenting style. The fundamentals of discipline for kids is universal, after all. We all have our own way of doing things but if you like a bit more structure, the 4 R’s will be your best friend. You might use a combination of the four R’s with a traditional sleep training method or you can go more ‘gentle’. It can all work. The fundamentals are the same. For example, if you are using an ‘in the room’ more ‘gentle’ approach to sleep training, you could use Gradual Withdrawal with Silent Returns or if you choose a more traditional sleep training method and have the door closed and stay out of the room, you might use Spaced Soothing with a Silent Return at your timed checks, if you need to. There’s no right or wrong way. 

The four R’s works best for children older than two and half to three years, although role play part works well at any age. Children need a certain level of cognitive understanding to be able to understand the concept of rules and rewards.


How to do it.


Bedtime Rules or ‘Bedtime Manners’


Firstly, you need to decide on your non negotiables as far as bedtime goes. Then, you need to have a plan to follow through.

1. Create a rewards/sticker chart with your child. If your child helps you make it, he or she will not only think it’s a fun activity, but will also feel a sense of ownership over the process.

2. Let your child choose one rule. For example, ‘mum has to read me three stories at bedtime’ or, ‘I get ten kisses when I go sleep’ (something that you know your child will love). It’s good to involve your child in the process because when a child has some control over the rules being put in place, they will be more likely to comply with them.

3. Talk to everyone close to you (friends, family, kindy teacher) in front of your child about what you are doing and the rules you’ve both made. Talk in an exaggerated, exciting and positive way. This will help your child know you have the expectation that he or she will be able to follow the rules.

4. Show confidence (even if you have to fake it), be firm and keep your rules simple and positive. Examples might be,  Stay in bed, be quiet like a mouse and close your eyes”.

5. Avoid  use the word ‘don’t’ as in ‘don’t get out of bed’. A child doesn’t hear the word ‘don’t’ in any sentence.

6. Don’t tell your child to ‘go sleep’. This concept is too abstract for a child to fully understand. It can stress them out and make them anxious about going to bed.

7. Stay positive at all times. This will help set your child up for success.





1. Let your child know very clearly, the consequences for not following your rules (both positive and negative).

2. A ‘positive’ consequence could be a reward such as a sticker or being allowed to play with a special toy. A ‘negative’ consequence could be a silent return or perhaps mum or dad will have to shut the bedroom door for five minutes.

4. Younger children might need an immediate reward like a sticker or stamp on the hand. Make a big deal out of the stickers and show your child where the stickers will be ‘waiting’ (out of reach but in clear view).

5. Older children can use the reward chart and have to work towards a set amount of stickers to receive a reward. An example of a reward might be a small toy (put this on a shelf within the child’s sight), pancakes for breakfast or an ‘experience’ such as a trip to the park.

6. Stick visual reminders like pictures or photos on the reward chart and refer to the chart often.

7. Fill your child full of praise when he or she earns a sticker. Exaggerate with your voice and your actions.

8. Do not take stickers or rewards away from your child if he or she has not followed through. Never use bribery. Rewards are earned for good behaviour whereas bribes are offered (or demanded) to stop bad behaviour. You should always focus on the ‘good kid’.

9. Only use the reward chart for up to three weeks as it can become ineffective much longer than this. The rewards chart is used as an incentive to get your child started on better behaviour and to create a new pattern of behaviour. Once the new pattern has cemented, the rewards will no longer needed.


Role Play


Role-play can be super effective with children from as young as nine months old! The idea is that you ‘play act’ the bedtime routine with a toy or a doll to help enforce your rules. Children love putting on a show! Have fun with this. Don’t get stuck into a ‘serious, teaching/learning mode’ but instead, make it a game. All kids learn best with play. You are showing your child/demonstrating what it is that you expect and your child is learning by doing with fun and attention which is their currency. Toddlers and preschoolers always learn best from ‘watching’ rather than being told and they learn best through play becaise this is their world. The biggest mistake parents make when disciplining is ‘to much talk’!



1. Read The doll or Toy a story, wrap it up and put it in a ‘bed’ on the floor (a pillow or cushion makes a great doll’s bed).

2. If your child’s vocab is up to it, model to the child how to tell Doll the rules and have your child repeat them/show you after you. A younger child might help you do this with actions more so than words. You can say, “you need to stay in bed, Little Doll. The rules are to stay in bed, be quiet like a mouse and close your eyes. Look at these special stickers that you will get if you stay in your bed. We know you can do it!”

3. Leave the room with your child, shut the door and stand outside and pretend to listen. Say, “Wow! Doll is staying in her bed, she’s such a clever Little Doll. She gets to have a Dora sticker. Wow! How about you give Doll her sticker?” Your child will see that you are outside the door and that you are very proud of Doll and that the doll will be rewarded for staying in bed (just like your child will be).

4. In the morning, if your child has followed the rules, reward him/her and the role play doll.

5. If your child did not follow the rules and he or she got out of bed overnight, you’d say, “unfortunately you got out of bed last night, so there’s no sticker for you today but look, Little Doll stayed in bed all night, so she’ll get a sticker, yay!” Put a sticker on the doll’s hand, give a pretend high five to Doll and tell the doll how clever and what a ‘good girl’ she is (in front of your child). Then tell your child, “you can get one tomorrow, if you stay in your bed like Doll”. Then, leave the room without going on about it any further and carry on with your day (no more talk).

5. Role play every day for a couple of weeks. Do the same thing over and over. Practice and repeat it all again and again. You will sound like a broken record and it could get a tad boring but it’s the repetition and consistency that will make things stick for your kid.


Silent Returns


This is an appropriate consequence for a child who keeps getting out of bed. Every time your child gets out of bed, he or she is immediately returned to bed. There is to be no talking, begging, growling or bribing involved. Parents should say nothing. You need to remove all engagement or attention at bedtime whether it’s ‘positive’ (praise, begging etc.) or negative (growling, yelling etc.).


1. You can go over the rules once (but only once) as a reminder, when you put your child into bed the first time.

2. If you need to ‘up the ante’, you can tell your child that if he or she gets out of bed, you will have to close the door for five minutes (and be prepared to follow through).

3. If you close the door, your child might get out of bed and lie on the ground or kick the door, screaming and yelling.  ignore this behavior.

4. After five minutes, silently return your child to bed and say, “if you get out of bed again, I’ll shut the door for ten minutes”.

5. You might have to do Silent Returns for an hour or so on the first night, which means you may possibly have to do sixty to eighty returns!

6. If your child gets out of bed and creeps into your room and into your bed in the middle of the night, you can put a little bell on his or her door. This should alert you that your child is out of bed before they actually reach your room. It’s best if you can intervene as close to your child’s door as possible and then you would simply follow through with your silent returns. Silent returns must be SILENT.


Have realistic expectations. Be prepared for a rough 1st night and get ready for better sleep. Step up and tough it out if you have to! DO NOT chop and change parents, DO NOT get angry or frustrated and whatever you do, DO NOT give up!