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Setting Boundaries with your Toddler

Parents will typically do whatever it takes to keep their child from playing with the stove or running into a busy intersection. This might entail putting protective covers over the knobs on the stove, or adding a security system to one’s home, so a chime beeps every time a door opens.

While these measures are extremely helpful to help keep the boundary set to avoid a potentially dangerous situation, parents often feel guilty about taking similar action when it comes to keeping their child in their own bed at bedtime. Although not exactly life threatening if your toddler comes out of their room to sleep in your bed, if it is a boundary you have set, then it's important that you enforce it just the same.

When we tell our children something, and don’t enforce it, Mom and Dad start becoming full of idle threats and children quickly pick up on this. For example, if your child asks you for a cookie and you start off by saying no . . .and then after three more asks you relent, this teaches your child that they just need to get to about one minute of whining and Mom will finally cave.

This is the same when your toddler inevitably crawls out of their bed and into yours. You likely tell your little one that they need to stay in their bed all night long, but at 3 am, in your blissful sleep haze, you willingly help your kiddo into the bed, nestle them between you and your partner, and eagerly fall back asleep (well, as much as you possibly can with a small human lying perpendicular in your bed).

In this situation, due to fatigue and obligations of the next morning, succumbing to bedsharing with a child often happens out of pure exhaustion. However, I urge you – if this is a rule you have set for your child – you must act swiftly and consistently about taking your child back to their own bed, or this three-person-in-a bed situation will escalate to a nightly occurrence.

How do you do this exactly when many children will say they are afraid of the dark or the monsters under the bed?

If your child is generally happy go lucky during the day, and does not have excessive anxiety in daytime situations, then it’s much easier to work with, and conquer, those nighttime anxieties about staying in bed. Here are some tips:

  • Create a consistent bedtime routine. When your child can reliably expect the same activities in the same order at the same time every night, it creates a sense of security and order in your child’s brain. You will find they are more receptive to bedtime.

  • Around age two and a half, little ones start developing imaginations and fears. Around this time, they will typically ask for their bedrooms to have brighter light. This is normal and appropriate for this age group. My favorite night light and sound machine with colors and sounds that can be controlled by your mobile phone is the Hatch Rest. You can set one color for “nighttime” and a different color for “morning” so that your child has a visual sign as to when it is okay to come out of their room.

  • Leave the bedroom door partially open. Most children prefer their bedroom doors open or will have a hard time falling asleep. A partially open door fosters the feeling of household connectivity to Mom and Dad and makes a child generally feel safer when they are not completely closed off in their room. Some parents opt to leave the door open while their child falls asleep, and close it once the child is asleep.

  • Encourage a special blanket or lovie to help your child feel safe. Once your child is one year old, they are old enough to have a blanket or lovie in their crib. Encourage an attachment object of this sort . . . this object will serve to help your little one feel safe and secure as the years go on.

  • Reaffirm that your child is safe! Refrain from looking for monsters with flashlights or playing into your children’s fantasies. Confirm that monsters are not real, your child is safe, and that Mom or Dad is nearby. Tape a picture of you and your spouse next to your child’s bed. Put a few drops of essential oil in a water spray bottle and let your child spray it around their room each night as “relaxation spray.”

  • Finally, if having your child sleep all night in their own room is important to you, you must enforce the boundary! If your child comes out in the middle of the night, it is crucial you consistently take them back to their room, or you will be a passive participant in creating a habit that will that much harder to break down the road – for both you and your child!

If you find yourself waking up in a bed of three, more often than you prefer, I can help you. Read more on how I help parents like you get your bed back!


Caroline Pavlinik is a baby and toddler sleep consultant, coaching parents how to gently and effectively teach their children how to sleep through the night and take age appropriate naps. To learn more or schedule a free consult, visit:

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