When Your 3 Year Old Wakes up Crying Every Night

Is your child suddenly waking up inconsolably for hours? Learn what to do when your 3 year old wakes up crying every night.

3 Year Old Wakes up Crying Every NightYou wish you could say it was one passing night, but nope. For the last several weeks, your 3 year old wakes up crying every night, screaming for you. She either gets out of her room and into yours or sits in her toddler bed inconsolably until you come in.

Sure, once in a while, you sense genuine fear and anxieties in her tears. It may have even started when she came down with an illness or had separation anxiety. But now, you could tell she was simply whining and whimpering for your attention.

You go in her room and reassure her everything is okay before tucking her back in bed. You even hold and cuddle with her until she falls asleep. But 30 minutes later, the whole fiasco starts all over again, sometimes up to three times a night.

What to do when your 3 year old wakes up crying every night

Just when I thought I was over multiple wake ups during the newborn stage, my son started suddenly waking up crying every single night. At first, I sat with him until he fell asleep, but he’d cry again when he’d wake up and realized I wasn’t there.

And since this sleep habit happened just about every night, I knew I had to do something. This didn’t seem like a passing phase that would go away on its own.

So, after a bit of research and trying to see what worked, I was able to help him get back on track to sleeping through the night again. Take a look at these tips when your 3 year old wakes up crying every night:

1. Talk to your child about what’s bothering them

Let’s start with what you can do before nighttime sleep happens. A good place to begin is by talking to your child about what’s bothering him in the first place.

We forget that, at 3 years old, kids are more capable of communicating than we sometimes give them credit for. Sure, they won’t articulate their feelings eloquently, but you can get a sense of why he wakes up every night than if he were an infant.

You might learn that he doesn’t like a particular shadow that he sees on the wall, or that the movie he watched scared him a lot. Ask him for ideas on what you can both do to help and make a list, from having a special stuffed animal to keeping the door a little bit more open.

Have this conversation during the day when you’re both alert and in a good mood. Listening and coming up with ideas can be difficult when you’re sleep deprived in the middle of the night.

Free resource: As frustrating as his behavior may be, a lot of it can be prevented by seeing things from his perspective. In The Power of Empathy, you can learn how empathy is the secret key that makes a huge difference. Join my newsletter and grab your PDF below—at no cost to you:

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2. Address your child’s feelings

Knowing what’s bothering your child can help you directly address the issue, but what if you can’t get her to explain herself? Sometimes you can’t always get a clear answer, so you might have to do a bit of sleuthing to see what could be keeping her up at night.

Start by asking yourself what big changes she could be going through, like ending preschool for the summer or moving to a new home. Then, think about the developmental changes she might be experiencing. Adding a nightlight can address fears of the dark while taking it out ensures no scary shadows.

No matter what, don’t discount her feelings as petty, even if you know there’s nothing to be worried or scared about. These are her feelings, as real to her as yours are to you. She’d rather feel heard and understood, not belittled or brushed aside.

Get more tips on how to talk to your child about feelings.

3. Make your child’s room a safe space to be

Do you oblige your child and sleep on the floor next to her bed when she has trouble sleeping? Or do you let her come into yours every night when she wakes up at two in the morning? This could be sending the wrong message about sleeping alone in her room.

After all, the more you allow these habits, the more you confirm that she shouldn’t sleep in her room, especially alone.

Instead, reassure her that you’d never put her in danger or have her sleep in her room if you thought there was a chance she’d be unsafe. Let her know that sleeping in her room is normal and safe, and that, at the end of the day, you’re still nearby.

One simple way to make her surroundings feel safer is to play there during the day so she associates it with positive moments. For instance, do most of her bedtime routine in her room. Then, make sure she has a special lovey or toy to sleep with, and turn on white noise to muffle sudden sounds that can startle her awake.

Lastly, avoid using her room as a “time out” (which you probably shouldn’t do in general anyway), as this creates a negative association with her room.

alternatives to time out

4. Check in strategically

Do you feel compelled to go into your child’s room each time he cries? You likely don’t want him to feel ignored or abandoned, or you believe it’s your job to make sure he doesn’t cry for long.

But at the end of the day, the goal is to help him feel confident and safe sleeping on his own, while still reassuring him that you’re right in the next room. So, what can you do? Check in on him at set times.

Start by discerning the type of cry in the first place. If he’s distraught or crying for you, then check in to see if anything is wrong. Usually, the first cry is “legit” while the ones after that are simply for comfort or attention.

If he does have a genuine need for you, check in on him to make sure he’s fine. Ask him what’s wrong, address it if possible, then tuck him back into bed. Let him know it’s time to go back to sleep and leave the room.

Set your timer for 15 minutes and, if he’s still crying, check in on him briefly (as in 30 seconds max) to let him know it’s still time to sleep. Repeat if needed in another 15 minutes, reassuring him each time that it’s time to sleep.

This can help him understand that yes, you’re still here, but he should sleep in his own room until the following morning.

Reward him with praise the next day, even for small progress. You might say, “You were able to sleep in your room all by yourself for four hours straight last night.” This can encourage him to continue good sleep habits instead of only pointing out the negatives.


Waking up to the sounds of your 3-year-old crying every night is no pleasant way to spend your evenings. But with patience, you can do more than simply wait for this phase to pass to help him go back to sleeping through the night.

Talk to him about what could be bothering him enough to wake up, and address any fears or worries he might have. Make his room a safe space to be, including having him sleep there alone despite his protests. And check in at set times, reassuring him that you’re nearby and that it’s still time for him to sleep.

Waking up in the middle of the night may not be a passing phase in your child’s sleep, but now you have the tools to help you get your full night of sleep once again.

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  1. Matthew Lepage says:

    Daughter won’t tell me whats bothering her.
    up at 11pm every single night without fail. Won’t stop having a melt down until we bring her to our bed.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Matthew! It’s definitely rough when she’s up every night and feeling inconsolable. You can try putting your foot down and really make it your plan to have her continue sleeping in her room, even if she throws a fit. Check in every 10 or 15 minutes if she’s still crying, but try not to bring her into your bed. This can send mixed messages and let her believe that she’ll eventually end up in your bed if she keeps crying.

      1. My little one is doing the same. He usually wakes up at 10pm every night but we can’t just let him cry because he will wake is baby brother in the next room. The last thing we need is 2 crying children all night.

        1. Nina Garcia says:

          Hi Erin! One thing that helped me is to put white noise in the sibling’s room. Maybe try turning on a fan or heater, an actual white noise machine, or even an audio of white noise in your other child’s room to muffle his cries.

  2. Hi! Thank you so much for this article. You mention checking in strategically, but what should I do if my 3yo is leaving his room? He’ll just hop out of bed and walk out to us. I’ve put him back and he gets right back up. Why is he in a bed? After an earthquake left him feeling trapped in his crib, he refused to get back in. 🙁

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Diana! I can definitely relate to the constant walking back to the room when they just open the door. What worked for us was putting doorknob covers on the inside of the room so that he couldn’t open the door and leave the room. He’d cry, and we checked in at set and frequent times so he knew we were still there, but that it was time to sleep. Some parents also use a baby gate. It also helped to have a monitor so that I could see what he was up to in the room.

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