Surprised that your 3 year old won’t go to sleep all of a sudden? Learn how to respond that can 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. 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 3 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 daytime—all because I had jinxed myself about how well my 3 year old had been sleeping.
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What to do when your 3 year old won’t go to sleep
Kids don’t fall asleep for many reasons.
Maybe your 3 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 didn’t get enough sleep yourself).
Perhaps he refuses to go to sleep alone because of nightmares about 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 your “threenager” throws a fit just getting ready for nighttime sleep. He fights about 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 these sleep issues, it feels like he’s running the show, night after night. You sometimes do whatever it takes to get some sleep, but worry you’re enabling habits that can 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 how to resolve common sleep 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.
Every situation is different (scared of monsters vs stalling at bedtime, for instance). I hope you can 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 12th night in a row he insists that they exist. Or to get tired of his nightly tantrums and refusal to start your regular bedtime routine, much less fall asleep.
But these are perfect opportunities to acknowledge his emotions and, more importantly, equip him with the tools to cope with them.
For instance, label his emotions (“It seems like you feel scared”) and talk about how you’ve felt the same as well. Give him ways to better express his frustration (“You can say ‘I’m mad’ instead of yelling”).
And use this moment to comfort and help him learn how to calm down, from simple things like cuddling with him to consoling him with soothing words. No amount of “disciplining” can work if you’re in the middle of your child’s bedtime tantrum.
Yes, it’s exhausting to do this when you’re delirious in the middle of the night, but this is what can 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, 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 we parents feel worried or guilty about decisions they make is that we decided on a whim.
Maybe you decided to let your 3 year old sleep in your bed since that was the only thing that would finally stop her from crying. Or you second-guessed your decision, especially when your gut says otherwise.
Rather than leaving it up to chance, decide beforehand how you’re going to handle bedtime when she fights it. That way, you can 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 the loudest protests won’t convince you to cave in.
2. Change your child’s environment
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Sometimes all it takes to get your 3 year old to sleep is to make simple tweaks to her sleeping environment. The novelty of it can be enough to convince her to fall asleep, especially when her attention isn’t on what had been getting her riled up.
Here are a few ideas:
- Install a night light (this one is a popular night light with parents)
- Leave the door open
- Turn the light nearest to her room on
- Give her a new or special item to sleep with (your pillow works well)
- Get new bedding
Sometimes it’s the night light that erases her fear of the dark. Other times, it’s the door she knows is slightly open so she doesn’t feel so shut in. The new change you make can be all it takes to get her to sleep on her own through the night.
And reiterate how safe her room is, whether that’s spending more time there or getting new bedding. The more positive and familiar her room is, the less scary or strange it can feel for her.
3. Experiment with your child’s sleep schedule
Even though the troubles only seem to happen at night, consider your child’s 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 she isn’t sleepy enough come bedtime, or that she’s cranky and overtired. Either symptom signals that a change in her sleep schedule can be all it takes to get her to go to bed once again.
For instance, try pushing bedtime later if she’s nowhere near sleepy at her regular time. Or drop or shorten nap time, making sure to move bedtime earlier to accommodate any grumpiness. Now is the time to see what works—and doesn’t work—in her 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 3 year old to sleep in your bed because she was afraid to sleep in her new one. You might have even made that decision when you were delirious with not much sleep, unsure of what else to do.
But when you notice that she’s relying on this new arrangement to fall asleep, cut the habit right away. No amount of waiting for a stage to pass can convince her to sleep in her bed when her habits have determined this to be the new normal.
So, don’t 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.
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 her to sleep in your bed night after night only tells her that her bed isn’t a good place to sleep.
Yes, this might involve a few challenging nights. But you’re better off helping her adjust to sleeping in her bed 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, 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 she 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 she realizes that his decisions have a direct impact on how much she can play before bedtime moving forward.
Be mindful of how you respond as well. If she senses that you’re anxious, upset, or disappointed, it can make her feel the same. But if you’re calm and confident when you reassure her that it’s time for bed, then she can feel safer and more confident in staying in bed.
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 or being afraid of sleeping on their own. Some books are about 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.
8. Check in on your child periodically
So, what do you do when you put your child to bed but he still won’t sleep? He’s screaming at the top of his lungs, refusing to go to sleep.
Let him fuss but check in on him periodically, about every 10 to 15 minutes. Let’s say you close the door and he starts to cry. Set your timer to 15 minutes, and once it beeps, check in on him.
Open the door and briefly—no longer than 30 seconds—make sure that he’s okay. Remind him that it’s time to sleep and that you’re in the next room. Then, set your timer again for another 15 minutes, so that if he’s still crying when it beeps, you’d repeat the process.
Keep going until he eventually settles down to sleep.
If he falls asleep but later in the night wakes up crying again, repeat the process. Check in on him when he cries, then set your timer for another 15 minutes to check in again.
You’re giving him a chance to settle down but also making sure he’s all right and reassuring him you’re still there.
It can be hard to decide what to do when your 3 year old won’t go to sleep, whether your child had always been a “good” sleeper or his behavior is typical of him.
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 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.
Acknowledge his emotions—from fear to anger to silliness—so he can use these moments to better cope with them. And finally, check in on him periodically, while giving him a chance to fall asleep on his own.
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.
Get more tips:
- 9 Things to Do When You Transition from a Crib to a Toddler Bed
- How to Help Your Child’s Separation Anxiety at Night
- Effective Ways to Handle the 3 Year Old Sleep Regression
- 3 Year Old Waking Up Too Early? Must-Know Tips for Moms
- 6 Tips to Help Your Kids Sleep in Their Own Beds
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