Surprised that your 3 year old won’t go to sleep all of a sudden? Learn practical ways to respond that will give you and your child the sleep you need.
“Remember when we’d wake up every two hours?” my husband and I reminisced.
Three of our friends had given birth within that month, making us shake our heads wondering how we ever got through that newborn stage.
By that point, our then-three-year-old had been sleeping through the night—ever since he was six months old, in fact. The sleep deprivation and constant wake-ups had been a thing of the past.
And so, it only seemed fitting that as we turned off the lights, we jokingly said to each other, “See you in two hours when he wakes up! He he he…”
Well, that was at 10:45pm.
And I kid you not, at 12:42am, our three-year-old woke up crying.
Even after he’d finally calmed down, it took me a long while to fall back asleep. As luck would have it, just when it seemed like I was about to doze off… he cried again.
You have GOT to be kidding me, I grumbled to myself.
I told him to lie back down when I found him sitting up in bed. He did, but once I closed the door, he started crying once more.
This time, I tag-teamed my husband, who tried all sorts of tweaks to see what was causing our son to cry. He made sure his diaper wasn’t full, and gave him medicine for possible teething. He checked to see if he’d dropped his lovey, and turned off the fan in case he was too cold.
By that time of the morning, I didn’t even bother falling back asleep and just got ready for work. You can imagine that I was pretty much a zombie the rest of the day—all because I had jinxed myself about how well my three-year-old had been sleeping.
What to do when your 3 year old won’t go to sleep
Kids don’t fall asleep for many reasons.
Maybe your three-year-old woke up in the middle of the night, crying and yelling for two hours until you finally let him sleep in your bed. Of course, even then, it still took another two hours for him to actually fall asleep (never mind that you got just about zero sleep yourself).
Perhaps he refuses to go to sleep alone because of the monsters he insists are lurking in his room. He might even wake up in the middle of the night, inconsolable about his fears. Your assurances that he’s fine aren’t enough to convince him to sleep in his bed.
Or maybe your three-year-old throws a fit just getting ready for sleep. He fights putting on pajamas, stalls during reading time, and claims he has to pee a zillion times. Even when you put your foot down and turn off the lights, he starts shouting that he’s not tired.
No matter the reason for the sleep regression, it feels like your child is running the show, night after night. You sometimes do whatever it takes to get some sleep, but you worry you’re enabling habits that will be near impossible to undo down the line.
Rest assured, friend, you’re not alone. Even if your “good” sleeper had been on a routine since he was six months old, you can get him back on track.
Over the years, I’ve learned several principles that resolve common sleeping problems (you don’t name a blog Sleeping Should Be Easy without learning a thing or two). Three kids later, these are the tips that emerge time and time again, the ones that truly work.
While every situation may be different (scared of monsters vs stalling on bedtime, for instance), I hope you’ll find a few key takeaways to help when your 3 year old won’t go to sleep:
1. Acknowledge your child’s emotions
It’s tempting to dismiss your child’s fear of the monsters, especially when it’s the twelfth night in a row he insists that they exist. Or to get tired of his nightly tantrums and refusal to start the bedtime routine, much less actually fall asleep.
But these are actually perfect opportunities to acknowledge his emotions and, more important, equip him with the tools to cope with them.
For instance, you can label his emotions (“It seems like you feel scared”) and talk about how you’ve felt the same as well. You can give him ways to better express his frustration (“You can say ‘I’m mad’ instead of yelling”).
And you can use this moment to help learn how to calm down, from simple things like hugging him tight to consoling him with soothing words. In fact, no amount of “disciplining” will work if he’s in the middle of a bedtime tantrum.
Yes, it’s exhausting to do this when you’re delirious in the middle of the night, but I promise this is what will set him up to handle these emotions better.
Bonus tip: Don’t give “false promises” like spraying or sweeping monsters away, as that only confirms his suspicions as true. Even though it seems to work, in the long-run, he’s better off with the tools he needs to cope with fear.
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2. Decide on—and stick to—a plan beforehand
One of the biggest reasons parents feel worried or guilty about decisions they make is because they decided on a whim.
Maybe you decided to let your three-year-old sleep in your bed, since that was the only thing that would finally stop him from crying. Or you second-guessed whether you should’ve read book after book before bedtime, especially when your gut says otherwise.
Rather than leaving it up to chance, decide beforehand how you’re going to handle bedtime when your child fights it. That way, you’ll rely on guidelines you’ve already set, erasing the doubts you might have.
The best part? You’re more likely to stay consistent when you have a plan in place. You know that even his loudest protests won’t convince you to cave in after all.
2. Change your child’s environment
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Sometimes all it takes to get your three-year-old to sleep is to make simple tweaks to his sleeping environment. The novelty of it can be enough to convince him to fall asleep, especially when his attention isn’t on what had been getting him riled up.
A few ideas include:
- Install a night light (this one is a popular night light with parents)
- Leave the door open
- Turn the light nearest to his room on
- Give him a new or special item to sleep with (your pillow works well)
- Get new bedding
Sometimes it’s the night light that erases his fear of the dark. Other times it’s the door he knows is slightly open so he doesn’t feel so shut in. The new change you make can be all it takes to get him to sleep on his own through the night.
3. Experiment with his overall sleep schedule
Even though the troubles only seem to happen at night, consider his overall sleep schedule. Some 3 year olds can start dropping their nap completely* (if they already haven’t), which can make for strange bedtimes.
This is especially useful if you find that your child isn’t sleepy enough come bedtime, or that he’s cranky and overtired. Either symptom signals that a change in his sleep schedule can be all it takes to get him to go to bed once again.
For instance, you can try pushing bedtime later if he’s nowhere near sleepy at his regular time. Or you could drop or shorten the nap, making sure to move bedtime earlier to accommodate any grumpiness. Now is the time to see what works—and doesn’t work—in his overall sleep schedule.
5. Don’t enable habits you don’t want
Recently, my son and I slept in the living room after he had a poop accident in the middle of the night. He sleeps in the top bunk, and the last thing I wanted was for him to need to use the potty again, only to stumble or possibly fall in his rush to reach the bathroom.
I’m all for once-in-a-while exceptions, especially when you can explain the reasons so clearly. But the trick is to put your foot down about habits you feel are no longer needed or useful.
So sure, you may have invited your three-year-old to sleep in your bed because he was afraid to sleep in his new one. You might have even made that decision when you were delirious with sleep deprivation, unsure of what else to do.
But when you notice that he’s relying on this new arrangement to fall asleep, cut the habit right away. No amount of waiting for a stage to pass will convince him to sleep in his bed when his habits have determined this to be his new normal.
Think of it this way: the more you enable the new habit you don’t want, the more you’re confirming that the old one doesn’t work. In other words, allowing him to sleep in your bed night after night only tells him that his own bed isn’t a good place to sleep.
Instead, you’re better off helping him adjust to sleeping in his own bed—even if involves a few challenging nights—than continuing the habit that you know isn’t sustainable.
6. Give consequences for stalling
Some kids try to stall bedtime so that they don’t have to face the inevitable so quickly. Other times, they get a kick out of seeing how far they can push the limits, and when you’ll truly put your foot down.
Stalling might seem innocent enough, especially since they’re not outright crying and screaming, but it’s yet another way to delay bedtime. Rather than letting it go on, give consequences for the decisions your child makes.
For instance, if he continues to stall (“I want more milk!”), you might say, “It looks like you need a lot more time before bed. Tomorrow, we’ll have to start the bedtime routine 10 minutes early if you take any longer.”
Now he realizes that his decisions have a direct impact on how much he can play before bedtime moving forward.
7. Read books about bedtime
After a while, kids might get tired of hearing the same things from us over and over. Reading children’s books about the specific topic you’re going through can help get the same message across in a different way.
You can find books about stalling before bedtime, being afraid of sleeping on their own, staying in their room, or what to do when they wake up in the middle of the night.
With books, your child can see how other characters handle the same issues he’s going through, all without you “nagging” him about it.
Whether your child had always been a “good” sleeper or his behavior is typical of him, it can be hard to decide what to do when your 3 year old won’t go to sleep.
Hopefully these tips have helped, no matter your situation. Start with having a plan beforehand so you’re more likely to stick to it. Changing his sleep environment in simple ways can work wonders, as does experimenting with his overall sleep schedule.
Read children’s books about bedtime to further ingrain the lessons you’re trying to teach. Avoid enabling habits you don’t want to keep, and follow through with consequences if he continues to stall and avoid bedtime.
And finally, acknowledge his emotions—from fear to anger to silliness—so he can use these moments to better cope with them.
These days, I’ll still get the occasional “rough night,” during which I’ve relied on these principles to get me through.
One thing’s for sure, though: I won’t be laughing about any distant memories of waking up every two hours again—because it just might come true.
Featured reader questions
“My 3.5 year old has been a good sleeper for years. If he woke at night, we’d give a little milk and down he’d go. He recently started preschool and all of a sudden he is screaming for me at night and won’t let me leave the room.
I’m emotionally wrecked at 3am after listening to screaming. I don’t dare bring him to my bed as I’m scared to create another habit. I’m so at a loss as what else to do.”
Try to check in on him periodically, based not on when he cries but on set times you determine, like every 10 minutes. That way you’re both giving him a chance to settle down but also making sure he’s all right and reassuring him you’re still there.
I would also focus more on managing how you respond and your emotions. If he senses that you’re anxious, upset, or disappointed, it can make him feel the same. But if you were calm and confident when you reassure him that it’s time for bed (firm but kind), then he’ll feel safer and more confident in staying in his bed.
“We have a bedtime routine that begins at 7:00pm it starts with bath, brushing teeth, a little TV and snuggle time, then she gets into bed, I read her a book of her choice, hug and kiss. I don’t shut the door per her request.
She has a nightlight and each night picks out a toy to sleep with. Still screams her head off and wakes up several times throughout the night crying.”
It sounds like your routine is on point, and you’re not dragging it out or anything. One thing I’d make sure to do is to reiterate how safe her room is, whether that’s spending more time there, getting new bedding, etc.
I’d also be firm and consistent with your responses when she does scream in the middle of the night. For instance, not sure if you do this, but try not to enable habits you don’t want and that can confuse her even more, like letting her sleep in your bed, or you sitting in her room until she falls asleep, as this only confirms that her room is actually not a safe or good place to be.
Then, I’d keep her in her room despite her crying, and check in on her every few minutes to reassure her you’re still here, but that she needs to stay in her room to sleep. And finally, watch your own demeanor—it’s important that you’re calm and encouraging even if you’re firm about your boundaries.
Get more tips:
- What to Do When Your Toddler Suddenly Won’t Sleep
- Toddler Climbing Out of the Crib? Easy Solutions to Help You
- Effective Ways to Handle the 3 Year Old Sleep Regression
- What to Do when Your Toddler Doesn’t Want to Sleep
- 6 Tips to Help Your Kids Sleep in Their Own Beds
Don’t forget: you can join my newsletter to download my PDF, The Power of Empathy! Discover how to better connect with your child, all by understanding her perspective and emotions. Get it below—at no cost to you: