Your 3 year old won’t stay in bed? You’re not alone. Get practical and helpful tips for when your child suddenly won’t sleep.
Independence can come at a price, don’t you think? For instance, your 3 year old’s newfound ability to get in and out of bed usually means he’s getting out more than staying in.
In fact, he gets up some 12 times a night, asking for a cup of water or to tell you his stuffed animal fell. You may have tried putting him back to bed like you heard you should, but eventually give up after two hours with no progress. And when you try to ignore him and go to your own room, he still comes out of his crying out for you.
It’s all too easy to get frustrated with him, only to feel guilty for doing so afterward. It’s not his fault, but at the same time, you’re at your wit’s end and don’t know what to do anymore.
Don’t worry, friend—we’ll get you out of this rut and undo habits and expectations you both may have gotten used to. Experiment with different techniques, set new boundaries, and most importantly, reinforce that staying in bed is a must.
Ready to dive in? Here we go:
Table of Contents
1. Adjust the nap
Many 3 year olds are starting to transition out of taking naps, making for inconsistent sleep needs. One day they take their usual two-hour nap, while they skip it entirely the next (only to be cranky the rest of the evening).
To help your child stay in bed, adjust her naps based on what you feel she needs. If she’s fussy and cranky from being overtired come bedtime, make sure she takes a nap (or at least rests in the afternoon). Or try pushing naps later in the day, so she’s more well-rested at night.
On the flip side, maybe she’s had too much sleep near bedtime, which makes her too wired to fall asleep. Put her down for a nap earlier in the day so she has a longer stretch in the afternoon to feel tired. You might even tire her out in the afternoon so she feels more inclined to fall asleep.
Free resource: Interested in learning about teaching her to put herself to sleep? Join my newsletter and get a preview of How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe (works for older kids, too!). This chapter is all about the mindset needed for successful self-soothing and helping her put herself to sleep.
2. Set clear expectations
We’re often in “response mode,” taking action based on how our kids behave. But you don’t have to wait until an incident happens to remind your 3 year old what she should or shouldn’t do. In fact, let her know long before bedtime rolls around.
For instance, during the day when she’s happy and receptive, remind her about what happens during your bedtime routine. Be specific, from the number of books you’ll read to the step-by-step process of what happens after you turn off the light.
“After bath time, we’ll read these four books,” you might start. “Then I’ll hand you your stuffed animal, turn off the lights, and leave the room. I’ll be in the kitchen, and you’ll stay in bed to sleep.”
As I say in my book, Parenting with Purpose:
“Your child’s behavior up to this point is a result of what she has been accustomed to. She didn’t wake up this morning behaving the way she does out of the blue. Instead, she’s grown used to certain messages and certain ways of life that enabled her behavior to continue the way it has.”
Setting expectations creates the boundaries and “rules” that everyone is clear on. This works especially well during times when she’s more likely to listen.
3. Take care of the excuses
Does your 3 year old delay bedtime with excuse after excuse? Beat her to the punch and have everything taken care of before you turn off the lights.
Make sure her favorite stuffed animal is in bed, that she drank her last cup of water, and that she’s had a chance to use the potty.
You might even write a checklist of her bedtime necessities, crossing them off as you settle her in. That way, should she decide to add another excuse you didn’t see coming, you can point to the list and remind her that it’s not part of the plan.
4. Don’t keep walking your child back to the room
Many of us have heard that the key to getting your child to finally stay in bed is to walk him back into his room. We’re supposed to do this without fanfare and with consistency—no matter how long it takes.
Well, let me tell you… your 3 year old will see this as yet another game to play. By the end of the night, you might find yourself walking him back for hours, having lost count of how many times he opened the door to leave.
You see, even without eye contact or fanfare, walking him back over and over is still attention. You know it’s gotten out of hand when you’re taking time out of your evening to walk him back 50 times straight.
So, instead of walking him back, what can you do? This:
5. Keep your child in the room
Remember when your 3 year old was a baby and stayed confined in the crib? You made sure that the crib was clear of blankets and stuffed animals so that she’d sleep safely.
Now that she can get in and out of bed, think of her room as a wider “crib” to keep her contained. In other words, don’t let her leave the room at night when she should stay in bed instead.
6. Check in strategically and frequently
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Go into your child’s room every few minutes (for instance, every five or 10 minutes) to reassure him you’re still here and to make sure everything is fine. Rather than going in every time he cries, decide to only check in at your designated times.
If she wakes up crying at night, repeat the same check-ins just as you did at bedtime. This helps cement the idea that she’s supposed to stay in bed.
An extra measure on top of checking in is to use a baby monitor. You’ll be able to see what he’s doing between check-ins and make sure he’s all right. You’ll also avoid needlessly opening the door and startling him awake because you didn’t know he had already fallen asleep.
Nights are extra challenging when your 3 year old won’t stay in bed, especially when it feels like it’s been going on for a long time. Thankfully, you can do plenty to get him to finally sleep.
To start, adjust naps and set clear expectations. Take care of typical excuses ahead of time, and avoid walking her back to her room over and over (it’ll never end!). Instead, keep her in her room, and make sure to check in so she knows you’re right here.
In time, she’ll eventually stay in bed—and not get up 12 times a night asking for yet another cup of water.
Get more tips:
- How to Get Your Toddler to Stay in Bed
- When to Transition from a Toddler Bed to a Twin Bed
- If Your 3 Year Old Tantrums Every Day, Try These Methods
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and get a free preview of How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe (works for older kids, too!):