Your 3 year old won’t stay in bed? You aren’t alone! Get practical and helpful tips for when your child suddenly won’t sleep alone.
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, over and over. If you drop his afternoon nap, he can hardly stay awake past 5pm. But if he does take a nap, he won’t go to bed until past 10pm. You may have tried putting him back in bed like you heard you should do, but eventually gave up after two hours with no progress.
Of course, when you ignore him and go to your own room, he still comes out of his to throw toys around or yell through the house. Taking privileges away or giving treats the next day hasn’t done squat, even after two weeks of consistently following through.
Other times, he makes incessant requests: for water, food, one more story, his favorite stuffed animal, or that he’s too hot. It’s taking so long to get him down every night that he’s not asleep until way past bedtime. You started off wishing this was a phase, but it’s only getting worse with time.
What to do when your 3 year old won’t stay in bed
It’s all too easy to get frustrated at your child, 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.
Don’t worry, friend—we’ll get you out of this rut and undo habits and expectations you and your 3 year old may have gotten used to. Experiment with different techniques, set new boundaries, and most important, reinforce that staying in bed is a must.
Ready to dive in? Here we go:
1. Adjust your child’s naps
Some 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 his naps based on what you feel he needs. If he’s fussy and cranky from being overtired come bedtime, make sure he takes a nap (or at least rests in the afternoon). Or maybe you try pushing naps later in the day, so he’s more well-rested at night.
On the flip side, maybe he’s had too much sleep near bedtime, which makes him too wired to fall asleep. Perhaps put him down for a nap earlier in the day, so he has a longer stretch in the afternoon to feel tired. You might even try to tire him out in the afternoon so he feels more inclined to fall asleep.
2. Set clear expectations
We’re often in “response mode,” taking action based on what our kids say or do. But you don’t have to wait until an incident happens to remind your 3 year old what he should or shouldn’t do. In fact, let him know long before bedtime rolls around.
For instance, during the day when he’s happy and receptive, remind him 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 your child is more likely to listen.
3. Take care of the excuses
Does your 3 year old delay bedtime with excuse after excuse? Beat him to the punch and have everything taken care of before you turn off the lights.
Make sure his favorite stuffed animal is in bed, that he drank his last cup of water, that he’s had a chance to use the potty.
You might even write a checklist of his bedtime necessities, crossing them off as you settle him in. That way, should he decide to add another excuse you didn’t see coming, you can point to the list and remind him it’s not part of the plan.
4. Don’t keep walking your child back into the room
Many of us have heard that the key to getting your child to finally stay in bed is to simply 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 simply consider this yet another game to play. By the end of the night, you just might find yourself walking your child back for hours, having lost count of how many times he opened to the door to leave the room.
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
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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 he’d sleep safely.
Now that he can get in and out of bed, think of his room as a wider “crib” to keep him contained. In other words, don’t let him leave the room, at least at night, when he should stay in bed instead.
I added a doorknob cover like this one to the inside of the room, so my son wasn’t able to keep opening the door and leaving the room. I could still open the door from the outside, but he wasn’t able to get out throughout the night.
Another option many parents have done is installing a baby gate in front of the door. That way, they could still open the door, but still couldn’t get out. And yet another option is to turn the doorknobs backward, so that you can lock it from the outside.
Now, this might seem strange, but again, think of his room as a larger “crib” you’re keeping him in. I learned that my attention, even walking him back in over and over, was actually a distraction. Only when my 3 year old learned that he had to stay in his room did he finally do so.
6. Check in strategically and frequently
Feeling guilty for keeping your child in his room? Check in strategically. Go in 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 only every time he cries, decide to only check in at your designated times.
Another option on top of checking in is to use a baby monitor. You’ll be able to see what he’s doing 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. Hopefully you’ll try something different with these tips, like adjusting his naps or setting clear expectations.
Take care of typical excuses ahead of time, and avoid walking him back to his room over and over (it’ll never end!). Instead, keep him in his room using doorknob covers, baby gates, or even turning the knobs around. And finally, make sure to check in so he knows you’re right here.
In time, your 3 year old will eventually stay in bed—and not get up some 12 times a night asking for yet another cup of water.
Get more tips:
- 7 Proven Strategies to Handle Bedtime Tantrums
- Genius Ways to Make Bedtime Easier
- Top Children’s Books about Bedtime
- 6 Tips to Help Your Kids Sleep in Their Own Beds
Interested in learning about teaching your child to self soothe? Get a preview of my guide, 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 your child put himself to sleep: