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 she’s getting out more than staying in.
In fact, she gets up some 12 times a night, over and over. If you drop the afternoon nap, she can hardly stay awake past 5pm, but if she does take a nap, she won’t go to bed until 10pm. You may have tried putting her back in bed like you heard you should do, but eventually give up after two hours with no progress.
Of course, when you ignore her and go to your own room, she still comes out of hers to throw toys around or yell through the house. Taking privileges away or giving treats the next day haven’t done anything, even after two weeks of following through.
Other times, she makes incessant requests: for water, food, one more story, her favorite stuffed animal, or that she’s too hot. It’s taking so long to get her down every night that she’s not in bed 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 her 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 importantly, reinforce that staying in bed is a must.
Ready to dive in? Here we go:
1. Adjust your child’s naps
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 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 he’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 into 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 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 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
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links, which means I will earn a commission—at no extra cost to you—if you make a purchase.
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 night, when he should stay in bed instead.
I added a doorknob cover like this one to the inside of the room so that 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 keep getting out at night.
Another option many parents have done is placing a baby gate in front of the door. That way, their kids could still open the door, but 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 your child’s room as a larger “crib” you’re keeping him in. I learned that my attention and walking my son back in over and over was actually a distraction. Only when he 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.
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. Hopefully you’ll try these tips, like adjusting naps or setting 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 using doorknob covers, baby gates, or even turning the knobs around. And finally, 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:
- 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
- When to Transition from a Toddler Bed to a Twin Bed
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!):