Effective Ways to Handle the 3 Year Old Sleep Regression

Dealing with the 3 year old sleep regression is frustrating. Learn what to do when your child won’t sleep through the night or stay in bed.

3 Year Old Sleep RegressionThe bedtime routine is suddenly becoming a nightmare.

Your 3 year old screams and fights sleep, not wanting to be put to bed. Even once tucked in, she won’t go to sleep, and instead keeps getting out of bed.

You used to be able to walk her back to her room, but now she demands that you lay with her on a mattress on the floor until she falls asleep (which can often take up to an hour). Of course, once she’s finally asleep, just one move on your part is all it takes before she’s awake, crying for you yet again.

The constant tears, sleep disruptions, and lack of a sleep schedule is draining, leaving you at your wit’s end.

Never mind that you’ve tried everything and established a routine with bath time, pajamas, and reading. Still, no matter how long or soothing the routine, she still throws a fit when it ends.

You’ve also made her room more comfortable, adding a night light so she’s not afraid of shadows, and giving her a comfort item.

You shower her with reassurances that all is well and fine. You’ve even woken her up earlier in the morning, hoping she’ll be sleepy come bedtime, but that has only led to grouchy behaviors.

Nope—nothing’s working. She’s still waking up in the middle of the night, leaving both of you sleep-deprived and exhausted. You don’t know how much more you can take, and feel horrible and guilty all the while.

Rest assured friend, this won’t last forever. In fact, you can help your child develop good sleep habits and sleep through the night in her room.

We won’t go over the other tactics you’ve likely already tried. Instead, let’s cut to the chase and get to the root of the problem, so that you no longer have to deal with the 3 year old sleep regression.

As a mom of three, I’ve had my fair share of sleep issues (hence the blog name!). I’ll share what has worked for me and what my general sleep practices looked like. By the end of the article, you can hopefully come away with actionable tips to try.

In fact, one parent found the tips helpful and effective, even at 4:30 in the morning. She wrote:

“Last night I was overwhelmed with our struggle of night wakings and walking him back to bed without saying a word. I read your article and tried to think about struggles our 3 year old child be going through. At his 4:30 waking, I talked to him to let him know that it’s time for sleep and that mommy and daddy are sleeping, but still here for him. I assured him I was close by and asked if leaving the door open would help and he responded with yes. I let him make that decision and he seemed to be comforted by that and stayed and slept in bed until almost 7. He’s woken up a happier kid and my husband is surprised at how well he is doing.” -Sutha Burke

Let’s get started:

3 Year Old Won't Go to Sleep

1. Experiment with naps and bedtimes

Many of us mistakenly think of nighttime sleep as isolated—that our kids’ resistance to sleep centers only within the evening hours.

Thing is, how well child sleeps during the day affects his sleep pattern at night.

This could mean not letting him nap past a certain time, or adjusting the time he naps so he has more time to be awake in the afternoon. You might even give up on his nap entirely, especially if it takes him a while to fall asleep.

In other circumstances, you might need to enforce nap time to begin with. It’s tempting to assume that lack of sleep will make him conk out by bedtime, but sleep begets sleep. The more sleep he gets during the day means better sleep at night.

And still yet, he might need a new bedtime, especially depending on his nap. For instance, if he takes a later nap, push bedtime back. Or if he’s transitioning to taking no daytime naps, you’ll likely need to have an earlier bedtime, even temporarily (sometimes even as early as 6:30pm).

Experiment with his sleep throughout the day, from morning wake-ups to bedtimes, to reduce how often he wakes up crying every night.

Free resource: Do you struggle with getting him to take a nap? Grab your copy of The Five Habits That Will Make Your Child’s Naps Easier and make the nap transition easier! Discover the five steps you need to do to finally get a break while he naps. You’ll also get my newsletters, which parents say they LOVE:

“I can relate to your stories so much. Your tip really got me, because I know it and need to put it into practice more. Thanks for all your expertise and wisdom, I really feel like you ‘get it’ when it comes to this struggle​.” -Clare Miller

The Five Habits That Will Make Your Child's Naps Easier

2. Help your child feel confident sleeping alone

It’s tempting to succumb to your child when she begs to sleep in your bed, or demands that you stay in her room until she falls asleep. After all, it’s a quick way to end tantrums at bedtime, right?

Thing is, you run into several sleeping problems with this arrangement.

First, this isn’t sustainable. She can’t continue sleeping in your bed in the long-run, and spending hours waiting for her to fall asleep takes a lot of time.

Obliging her requests also sends the message that all she has to do is throw a fit to get her way. Although you’re sleep-deprived, agreeing to her unreasonable demands sets up habits that can be difficult to undo.

Most important, you’re preventing her from learning a crucial skill: the ability to feel confident sleeping alone.

Each time you agree to sleep in her room, you’re reinforcing her fears that her room isn’t a safe and comfortable place to sleep. Similarly, inviting her into your bed every night confirms her suspicions that she’s better off sleeping with you than alone in her own toddler bed.

3. Address issues of separation anxiety

As annoying as it is to deal with a sleep regression, the root of the issue is anxiety. All kids go through separation anxiety, which is normal and even celebrated (it signals a healthy attachment to parents).

For instance, a 3 year old’s attachment to her mom could be a sign of a deeper fear of being apart. Separation anxiety at night can stem from new fears he has developed to changes in the family such as welcoming a new baby.

Take a good look at what’s going on in his environment and any developmental milestones he may be experiencing. Is he entering a new school or potty training? Could he have seen something scary on television or in a movie?

Another reassurance you can offer is to let him know when he can expect to see you again. While it may seem obvious that you’ll reunite in the morning, he can see the long stretch ahead and wonder if you’ll still be nearby. Addressing separation anxiety leads to long-lasting solutions to the 3 year old sleep regression.


Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links, which means I will earn a commission—at no extra cost to you—if you make a purchase.

Figuring out what to do with the 3-year-old sleep regression is hard, especially when typical parenting advice and tips don’t work. Your child might be welcoming a new sibling, or feeling scared of monsters and other night terrors.

That’s why you need to dig deep and get to the root of the problem. This starts with making sure she feels comfortable sleeping alone in her room, drawing on calm and patience so she models your behavior. Address issues with separation anxiety, including new changes or milestones she may be going through.

And finally, take a look not just at the evening hours of sleep, but the entire day. You might need to adjust her nap, wake-up, or bedtimes until you find a good balance.

Now you can say goodbye to bedtime battles, walking her back to bed over and over, or trying to sneak out of her room without a peep.

p.s. Check out How Do Dinosaurs Go to Sleep? by Jane Yolen to help her see sleep in a positive way:

How Do Dinosaurs Go to Sleep? by Jane Yolen

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The Five Habits That Will Make Your Child's Naps Easier

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  1. My 2 and half year old twins still nap during the day..They go to bed fairly easy most nights but during the day I rely struggle…they sleep in different room..because the one sleep shorter than than the other one..and most of the time he struggles more to fall asleep..but this week my better sleeper is absolutely refusing to go to sleep..and he really needs it still!!!how do I train him back into that pattern..he keeps calling out to me.We havent changed anything in their routine..

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Anelle! I’m wondering if there are any changes going on in his life that could be making him upset, especially since it seems so out of the blue. It could be actual changes like going to a new school, or even developmental ones, like a new separation anxiety he might be feeling. I’d help ease his feelings about nap time, depending on whatever could be contributing to his behavior. Reading books is fantastic, as is making sure nap time isn’t seen as “punishment” but rather a matter-of-fact part of the day.

      Then, I would keep him in his room until the designated nap time is over, checking in every few minutes just to pop your head in and make sure he’s all right and let him know you’re still here. Keep reassuring him that nap time isn’t over yet, and do stick to your word and pick him up right when it is if he’s still awake. That way, he knows that this is simply part of his day.

      Hang in there, Anelle! I know how frustrating skipped naps can be. Hoping this is a stage and he gets over it quickly. xo, Nina

  2. Hi.
    My 3 year old used to be an angel at going to sleep on his own after bedtime routine.
    We have recently had a baby and my son has also started preschool. .
    So i know there are changes to his day time routine and he probably hears the baby cry at night. He also wonders why he is on his own at night and the 3 of us are in one bedroom.
    He refuses to go to sleep now, and then when he wakes in the night demands one if us sleep on his floor. We used to refuse and help he go to sleep on his own. But it has started creeping into his personality in the day.
    He used to be so confident, a whirl wind, taking on mostly anything with hesitation.
    However, now he cowers behind my legs, grabbing me, shaking and calling out for me when we leave him at the childminders.
    He has been going there since he was 8 months old.
    He also started preschool which he initially enjoyed, but has now become quite nervous about going.
    I just really don’t know how to handle this sitiation at all.

    1. Without hesitation*

    2. Nina Garcia says:

      Big hugs, mama! It’s hard dealing with a newborn along with a toddler whose behavior changed in response to the new addition. It seems like he feels left out from the family, sleeping in his own room. You might explain that when we were all babies, we woke up plenty of times and needed to feed multiple times. Then as babies get older, we get our own beds and no longer need to eat at night. That way, he understands that this eventually will pass, and explains why the baby needs to be in your room. You can also explain that in a few months the baby will sleep elsewhere just like he does.

      The clinginess is likely his anxieties and wanting more time with you. Perhaps plan a few one-on-one moments with him, even as simple as a walk around the block. If the baby has to be there, then he can also be your helper, so that he sees that you’re on the same side. I’m guessing that as he adjusts to the new baby, he’ll eventually take to sleeping on his own. You may need to sleep train him and go cold turkey as far as not sleeping in his room, especially if he’s grown used to you staying there with him.

      Good luck! I know it’s hard—my eldest was that age when we brought the twins home, and I always said that those first few weeks were hard because of his behavior, not the twins! It’ll eventually sort itself out, especially if you put your foot down about your expectations and connect with him one-on-one. This is a huge transition for all of you, but you can imagine how overwhelming it is for him especially.

      1. my daughter is nearly 4 and our baby is 4 month now and around 2 week in to haveing a new baby out 4 year 9ld jist won’t go sleep. I put her to bed around 7 and she’s still awake at 13 at nite jist saying mum ” mum im stuggleing to no what to do to get her to go sleep x

        1. Nina Garcia says:

          Hi Carol! She’s likely dealing with the changes of having a new baby at home. I’d spend time getting her to talk about how she feels about the new baby, and perhaps spend one-on-one time with her. If I had to guess, her sleep regression likely has to do with the new changes in her life, so if you start there and reassure her that she’s loved even with all the things going on, then this can very much help her sleep better at night.

  3. Mindy Garrenton says:

    Hello! Our 3 year old son has always been an amazing sleeper. We followed “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child,” and it worked so well for our family from age 5 months to just recently. He suddenly began rejecting naps in his crib, then he began to show signs of intense separation anxiety at bedtime. He is fine going through the bedtime routine, even ready to get in his bed, but will protest when we leave him. Because his habits have been so predictable up until now, we tried to ignore at first. But his cries became intense and he began night waking. I brought him into our bed one night and worry we just lost all progress. We’ve now begun to sit in a chair until he falls asleep. When he wakes he screams for us and we will go sleep on his floor or eventually give in and bring him to our bed. We are being inconsistent and are at a loss. No new baby or changes. We think maybe he had a bad dream or is newly aware of dark (he has a nightlight now). His bed is lined with his favorite stuffed animals. It’s a 180 for us. For so long, he’s loved his room, falls asleep and puts himself to sleep no problem, has been eager for bed and naps with such ease for the most part. We tried returning to extinction but he will cry for hours and it seems exacerbate the anxiety. But he’s also learned there’s a new possibility that we will join him or bring him to bed with us that was simply never there before, largely bc we were so careful and consistent it was a non issue. We’re all exhausted and at a loss as to how to help him love his room again. We just don’t know what changed to upend all his habits and how we can recover them. Thanks for any advice!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Mindy! I think you’re on point with so many things, especially with not really knowing the root cause of it, but that the patterns of staying in his room or bringing him to yours has clouded his decisions and made those the new normal.

      The first thing I would do is to explain to him long before bedtime the “new rules,” which means he will sleep in his room from now on without you, and that also means he won’t go to your room even if he gets frustrated. Then, give him tools to cope when he starts to feel that way, such as hugging a favorite animal, maybe giving him one of your pillows to hold, breathing, telling himself you’re right next door, singing a song, etc., so that he has tools to use when these feelings happen.

      I would then ask him why he thinks he gets upset at night, and see if he opens up about a few reasons. Depending on his answers, you can together find solutions to help him. For instance, if he says he’s scared of the dark, even with the night light, offer to leave the hallway light on and his door slightly open. It’s also okay if he can’t articulate what he feels, because the feelings and circumstances may just be so beyond what he can express right now. Instead, look for clues, so that if you think it’s because he feels he can’t manage being away from you, you can relate a similar story of when you were afraid of being alone, how that was like, what you did to feel better, and how everything turned out okay again.

      Then if he still cries at night, don’t ignore it completely, but also don’t spend too much time and fuss on talking to him. So if he cries, calmly, confidently, and compassionately let him know it’s time to sleep, to try the tools you talked about, and that he will stay in his room. That he will feel so proud of himself for doing so. Then leave—this shouldn’t take more than a few seconds. Do this every few minutes if needed.

      And lastly, the next morning, no matter how dreadful the night was, let him know how proud you are of him for pulling it off, for giving it his best shot, and for frankly sleeping in his room alone all night, which is a big feat in itself. He will feel so good with your congratulations and praise that he will be more likely to give it a try again the next night.

      Let me know if that helps, Mindy! And keep me posted—I’d love to hear how it goes.

  4. Mrsyanger says:

    We seem to have a handle on bedtime, but our struggle is the wake up time. My soon to be 3 yr old wakes up between 430-5am. We have shifted bedtime to from earlier to later, and it doesn’t affect his wake time. He wakes up crabby and sometimes angry. Any thoughts?

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi there! Early wake ups are definitely a challenge, especially when it seems to happen no matter what time you put them to bed. Typically, these are habits that can take a few days and nights to reset, as all habits do. Thankfully, there are things you can do that can help.

  5. Hi,
    this is EXACTLY us. Our (soon to be) 3 year old daughter used to be a dream sleeper from 6 months – could be put to bed in minutes. stayed in her bed when waking without a peep. But now she FREAKS at bedtime. Saying there are bad guys in her room. Cries and screams and gets herself so worked up that she makes herself sick! We have tried everything: letting her cry it out, monster spray, a new superman teddy to “keep her safe”, new night light, door/curtains open, new music, talking through the monitor, sitting in the hallway outside her room so she can still see us but were aren’t “in her room”. We are at a loss with what to do anymore, and we are exhausted…

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Jennifer! Monster spray tends to not work because it “confirms” her suspicions that there ARE bad guys when you know there really aren’t. I would try to keep your demeanor very calm, confident, and compassionate. It’s a balance of listening to her concerns, but at the same time, not getting freaked out or irritated by them. Imagine a friend you have complaining about something that you know isn’t a big deal. You offer a listening ear and show your support, but you don’t do anything to confirm her complaints or get aggravated by it, either. Let her know she’s safe, without brushing aside her emotions. You might show empathy by saying, “You seem scared at night. I would feel scared too if it were me.” Then you can reassure her that you’re here right next to her in the other room. And in the meantime, avoid reinforcing any habits you don’t want to continue, like letting her sleep in your bed or needing to stay in her room until she falls asleep, that way she knows she has to face it, with your support. Finally, often the best time to talk to her about it when it’s not sleep time, for instance during the day when she’s happy and receptive, as opposed to right when she’s having a meltdown about it.

  6. Our 3 year has never slept well. His sleeping habits have gotten worse over the past year. He will go to sleep just fine for us but he wakes up shortly after and fusses. Not crying, just whining. Still asleep. Usually the husband or myself will listen on the baby monitor to see if he will self soothe and go back to sleep. If he doesn’t, one of us will end up going in there to check and console him. 99% of the time, he’ll go straight back to sleep. BUT then a few hours later, he’s doing the same thing. Then it just continues every few hours. Majority of the time, he wants to come in our bed and yes, we give in because we’re both exhausted and don’t want to fight with him. He will get in our bed and then wake up constantly, talking in his sleep. I think they’re night terrors or he’s having dreams. We’ve made him room comfortable, read several books, tried different nap schedules, white noise machines, sleep training, etc. You name it, we’ve done it. Send help! – Tired Mom

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      So sorry to hear that, Mallory! I can definitely understand the exhaustion and frustration. Like you said, allowing him into your bed is likely making things worse, as it makes him even more confused about the rules and boundaries. When he whines, go into his room and let him know it’s time to sleep. Then set your timer to go off about every 15 minutes, and if he’s still whining during that time, go back in and let him know it’s time to sleep. But don’t use this to soothe or get him back to sleep, more like a reassurance that you’re still here, but a confirmation that it’s still time to sleep.

      The more consistent you can be with doing this, the more he’ll understand that his whining won’t get you to pick him up. He’ll also develop the coping methods to manage his emotions. Over time (and it can take time!), he’ll head straight back to sleep.

      I hope that helps, Mallory!

  7. My three and a half year old recently returned to preschool three weeks ago and bedtime has become a nightmare. On her school days (because she naps at school), even getting her to sleep at her usual time of 8pm is a struggle now… some nights it goes well, other nights, she isn’t falling asleep until like 9:30pm 🙁
    In addition to that issue, she wakes up multiple times a night and cries for me and when I go to her room, she cries mommy stay next to me, don’t leave and wants me to hold her hand while she tries to go back asleep. She has said a couple times about being afraid of the dark also but I have a nightlight in her room as well as her ceiling light on, dimmed for her. I have soft lullaby music playing for her and she has many stuffed animals with her.
    I try to encourage her that she can go to sleep on her own without me but she just will not. If I attempt to leave her room, she screams until I return (I’m sure because she knows I cave every time to the screaming and crying my name). It is just her and I at the house and I’ve been the constant for her so I know it’s due to a lot of changes happening for her but I do need to get this resolved.
    Last night I sat next to her for an hour and a half from 12:30am-2am holding her hand until she fell back asleep. It made it very difficult to get up early for work this morning that is for sure.
    How can I fix the issue of her waking up one-three times a night and not wanting to go back to sleep? Thank you for taking the time to read this.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Tam! It’s definitely rough when facing a sudden separation anxiety at night, even though it’s understandable, given her new experience with preschool. One thing I would do is to make preschool seem fun and normal, not an anxiety-riddled event that she has to endure. Make it seem like a privilege, or even a treat, that she gets to do. This will help paint it in a better light.

      Then, see if you can give her something of yours that she can keep while she’s at the school, even something like a hair tie or a small picture of you in her backpack. That way, she has a piece of you with her throughout the day. Also, be as consistent with everything else in her life, from the time you pick her up to when she eats dinner to the order you do her bath activities. This will also ease her anxieties.

      And lastly, as I’m sure you know, stay consistent with what is allowed or not at bedtime. If she cries, reassure her with a confident smile that she can do this. Set a timer for 5 minutes, and if she’s still crying, go in and reassure her again. Do the same at 10 and 15 minutes and in 15-minute increments thereafter until she falls asleep. Don’t stay long when you check in, just a few seconds to pop in. Do this as well in the middle of the night. So, in a way, you’re doing two things: giving her a chance to fall asleep on her own, but checking in with her frequently in a kind and compassionate way to be sensitive to her anxieties.

      I hope that helps, Tam! Hang in there, mama <3

  8. Christina Fallacaro says:

    My son turned 3 in February. He used to be easy to sleep. Now it a long process to go to sleep, with multiple episodes of coming out of his room, screaming and crying. This has gone on for over an hour until I give in an rock home or lay on his floor. In addition to bedtime it’s the night waking. He wakes up and does not go back to sleep. Sometimes I takes 45 min, some times 2 hours of rocking, rubbing his back, hold his hand, etc. We can keep going on like this. Any tips would be helpful!!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Christina! Have you considered sleep training him to stay in his room? If it’s okay with his pediatrician, you might want to think about letting him get used to falling asleep on his own (instead of needing you to fall asleep). You’ll need a way to keep him from going out of the room at bedtime while still checking in on him frequently but briefly.

  9. Harmonie Carey says:

    Hi im jist looking for a bit of advice, for qbout q year now my 3 year old has slept with me but iv decided its time to put him in his own bed for a better night sleep for us both.iv done all the bedtime routine qnd he wont even stay in bed or his room just screams and runs out,i walk him bck ressure him but still dont work the only way he would stay is if i sat in the room till he fell asleep but then he kept repeting this threw the night qmd just screaming .

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Harmonie! It sounds like he’s gotten used to having you there in order to sleep, which is why he screams if you so much as leave. Have you considered sleep training him to stay in his room? I tried the whole walking them back to the room over and over, and it just didn’t work for us. That way, he can learn new habits and feel confident that he can sleep on his own.

  10. Stephanie says:

    I have a soon to be three year old that just got a new full size bed with no more crib. This is day 14 f waking up either in the middle of the night or multiple times throughout the night. ( 7 of these days were in a crib she was use to.) she starts to cry and scream i want mommy, has a stuffed animal, white noise machine and night lights in her room and in the hallway. I have tried little times going in there and reassuring her mommy and daddy are here and that you are fine but this is still happening. Any advice i don’t know how much more i can take.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Stephanie! One thing that might help is to check in at set times, instead of going in every time she cries. For instance, if she cries, go in and reassure her, then close the door and set your timer for 5 minutes. If she’s still crying, go in at that point and reassure her again, and this time set your timer for 10 minutes. Repeat if she’s still crying at that point, but set your timer for 15 minutes. Basically, you’re helping her learn how to settle on her own, and realize that you’re still here even if you don’t come in the second she cries. It also helps if you exude calm and confidence so that she can see that you know she’s safe and that there’s nothing to fuss about.