When Your 3 Year Old Wakes up Crying Every Night

Suddenly waking up to inconsolable crying is no way to spend your nights. Join me as I explain what to do when your 3 year old wakes up crying every night and finally get the sleep you need.

3 Year Old Wakes up Crying Every Night

I wish I could say it was one passing night, but nope. 

Just when I thought sleep deprivation was long behind us, my 3 year old 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 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. If you’re in the same boat, take a look at these tips when your 3 year old wakes up crying every night:

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 kids this age are more capable of communicating than we sometimes give them credit for. Sure, they won’t articulate their feelings eloquently, but you can still get a sense of why he wakes up every night.

Let’s say your 3 year old won’t stay in bed. The next morning, talk to him about what upset him.

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, 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.

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Address your child’s feelings

Sometimes you can’t always get a clear answer about why your 3 year old won’t go to sleep, 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. What developmental changes might she be experiencing? Perhaps adding a nightlight can address fears of the dark while removing it ensures no scary shadows.

Could she be overwhelmed by all her daily activities or feeling “bossed around” without a say in anything? Clearing your calendar or letting her decide what pajamas to wear can ease those issues.

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. Make sure she feels heard and understood, not belittled or brushed aside.

3 Year Old Won't Go to Sleep

Make your child’s room a safe space to be

One of the best ways to handle a 3 year old sleep regression is to help your child feel confident sleeping alone.

Sleeping on the floor next to her bed or letting her come into your room every night sends the wrong message about her ability to sleep on her own. 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 you’re always nearby.

One simple way to make her surroundings feel safer is to play there during the day so she associates it with positive moments. You can also do most of her bedtime routine in her room so that the transition to sleep feels smoother.

Make sure she has a special lovey or toy to sleep with, and turn on a white noise machine 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.

Check on your child 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 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 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 on him to make sure he’s fine. Ask him what’s wrong, address it if possible, and then tuck him back into bed. Let him know it’s time to go to sleep and leave the room.

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

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

Expert tip

Reward him with praise the next day, even for small progress, and yes, even if he cried a lot. You might say, “You fell asleep in your room all by yourself for four hours straight without waking up!” This can encourage him to continue the behavior you want to see.


Hearing your 3 year old waking up crying every night is no pleasant way to spend your evenings. But now you have the tools to help you get your full night of sleep once again—because we all know it’s not always just a passing phase.

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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.