You can ‘sleep train’ your toddler.


There’s no doubt that toddlers like to push their parent’s buttons. This often happens around bedtime or in the middle of the night when everybody is tired and desperate for sleep. The four R’s are a great tool to use for toddlers and preschoolers who are in a bed and who have a tendency to get out of their bed. The four R’s are:

  • Role-play
  • Rewards
  • Rules
  • Returns

If you like a bit of structure, you can use a combination of the four R’s with a traditional sleep training method. For example, if you are using an ‘in the room’ approach to sleep training, you could use Gradual Withdrawal with Silent Returns, or if you choose to have the door closed and stay out of the room, you might use Spaced Soothing with a Silent Return at your timed check, if you needed to.

The four R’s works best for children older than two and half, to three years, although role play 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.


1. Bedtime Rules or ‘bedtime manners’.


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Be confident, firm and make the rules simple and positive. Examples of simple rules could include: Stay in bed, be quiet like a mouse and close your eyes.
  • Never use the word ‘don’t’ as in ‘don’t get out of bed’. A child doesn’t hear the don’t in any sentence.
  • Don’t tell your child he or she needs to ‘go sleep’, as this concept is too abstract for a child to fully understand.
  • Stay positive at all times because this will help set your child up for success.


2. Rewards


  • Let your child know, very clearly, the consequences for not following your rules (both positive and negative).
  • 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 will have to shut the door for five minutes.
  • Younger children may need an immediate reward e.g. A sticker or stamp on the hand. Make a big deal out of the stickers and show your child where they will be ‘waiting’.
  • Older children might use the reward chart and have to work towards a set amount of stickers on the poster to receive a reward. A reward might be a small toy (put this on a shelf within the child’s sight), pancakes for breakfast or a trip to the park.
  • Stick visual reminders like pictures or photos on the reward chart and refer to the chart often.
  • Fill your child full of praise when he or she earns a sticker and exaggerate everything.
  • Do not take stickers or rewards away from your child if he or she has not followed through. Never use bribery.
  • Only use the rewards chart for up to three weeks, as it can become ineffective much longer than this.


3. Role Play


Role-play can be effective with children from as young as nine months old. The idea is that you role-play the whole bedtime routine with a toy or doll in your child’s room. You are showing your child what it is that you expect from them and they are learning by doing.

  • 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).
  • If your child’s vocab is up to it, model to the child how to tell the doll the rules and have your child repeat them 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. Be quiet like a mouse and shut your eyes. Look at these special stickers that you will get if you can do this”. We know you can do it!
  • Leave the room with your child, shut the door and stand outside and pretend to ‘listen’.
  • Then say, “Oh listen, little doll is staying in her bed, she’s such a clever little doll. She gets to have a Dora sticker. Wow!”
  • Your child is seeing that you are outside the door and that you are very proud of the doll and that the doll will be rewarded for staying in bed (just like your child will).
  • In the morning, if your child has followed the rules, reward your child and the role play doll.
  • 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.” Put a sticker on the doll’s hand, give a pretend high five to the doll and tell the doll how clever and what a good girl she is (in front of your child). You can get one tomorrow, if you stay in your bed”. Then, leave the room without going on about it any further.
  • Do this every day for a couple of weeks.


4. Silent Returns


This is a great technique 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 would be no talking, begging, growling or bribing involved. Parents should just say nothing. You need to remove all engagement or attention at bedtime, whether it’s positive (praise, begging etc.) or negative (growling, yelling etc.).

  • You can go over the rules once, as a reminder, when you put your child into bed the first time.
  • 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.
  • Be prepared that if you close the door, your child might get out of bed and lie on the ground or kick the door, screaming and yelling. Just ignore this behavior.
  • After five minutes, silently return your child to bed and repeat the warning that “if you get out of bed again, I’ll have to shut the door for five more minutes”.
  • 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!
  • 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 will alert you that your child is out of bed so that you are made aware that your child is up before they actually reach your room. It’s best if you can intervene as close to your child’s door as possible.
  • Silent returns must be SILENT.
  • Stay consistent. Do not chop and change parents, do not get angry or frustrated and whatever you do, don’t give up!