What to Do When Your 3 Year Old Won’t Stay in Bed

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.

3 Year Old Won't Stay in BedIndependence 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:

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.

How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe

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.

Conclusion

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.

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How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe

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15 Comments

  1. We have a unique situation. Our 3 year old has his bed in our bedroom as we do not have a bedroom for him yet. What would you suggest for keeping him in his own bed as he keeps climbing in our bed for sleeping. He is number 6 and the other two rooms are already shared with no more space for another bed. We will have space in another 2 years as 2 of the children will be moving out on their own.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Colleen! Having his bed in the same room as yours is definitely tricky, as there’s no way to keep him in his bed if he’s able to move about. One strategy you may want to try is to sleep train him in your room while you set up a temporary sleeping arrangement for yourself elsewhere in the house (say, in the living room). Then, once he’s comfortably sleeping in his bed, you can move back in and sleep there again.

  2. I do all of these things with my 3 year old, but unfortunately I have 2 of them. The twins share a room and do not get out (because of the doornob), but will happily play together until all hours of the night. We don’t have a second safe room for them. Is there any solution for getting them to sleep when they’re happy to play in their room? They only have blankets, pillows, and a few stuffed animals, so it’s not like they’re playing with toys. Just each other.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Abby! Whenever my twins were up talking to each other, I check in on them every 15 minutes or so to remind them that it’s time to sleep. That way they know that play time is during the day, and nighttime is for sleep.

  3. Hello, and thank you for this incredibly insightful post!
    Regarding “keeping them in their room”, when do you know it’s finally time to let them have an unlocked door again? And do you feel that this is just a necessary thing at this age when they lack the impulse control to stay in their rooms?
    We have a three year old jack in the box and I’m at my wit’s end with trying to keep him in his room. When he first got his own room and graduated to his twin bed, we had some issues with keeping him in his room, so we did a door knob cover for a while. He was doing so great that we eventually took it off. After a while, he started leaving again so the cover went back on, but he figured out how to take the cover off entirely! So for the past few months we’ve been trying all manner of things to keep him in his room. The only solution to keep him in his room would be to tape the knob cover to the knob so he couldn’t pry it off (he can easily climb over/tear down a baby gate). Thank you so much for your help/advice!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Ellise! Sorry to hear that he has been able to get out of the room despite all your efforts! One thing you can try is to treat it like “sleep training,” where you walk him back to his room at set times. Let’s say he opens the door to his room (and you’re in your room). You would get out of your room, explain to him that it’s time to sleep in his room, walk him back, and close the door. Set your timer for 5 minutes. If he opens the door again, repeat the process when the 5-minute timer goes off. This time, set it for 10 minutes. If he does it again, set your timer for 15 minutes, and keep doing this every 15 minutes as needed. Hopefully he’ll learn that he’ll have to stay in his room, and that you won’t let him stay in yours. The frequent check-ins also remind him that you’re still here, but that it’s time to sleep.

      1. Thanks so very much for your reply! I’m not sure if I entirely understand (I’ll blame the sleep deprivation!). Do you mean that when he first gets out of his bed, walk him back, explain it’s time to sleep, shut the door, set a timer for 5 minutes and wait outside his door? And when the timer is up, do I go back in to “check on him”? And then if he comes out again, later, I do the same thing but make it 10 minutes instead? What if he comes out before the timer is up? Thank you SO much for your advice!

  4. I have a child who will be three at the end of January. She will not nap. At daycare she naps… at Grandma’s she naps… she will not nap for me or her Dad unless we physically rock her down and even then it’s a struggle and we end up nap trapped. I’ve tried quiet time or even doing a show quietly and having her lay down but she just flops around. And if I put her in our room (we cosleep) she just gets up over and over and over and I can’t lock her in. She’ll beat down the door and I don’t feel comfortable locking a kid in a room. So I’m at a loss for what to do. She gets so tired that she will start to hit ir bite. And today we were active all day. We made pancakes together, took a long walk, and had a picnic in the house before trying quiet time. She literally goes and lays down on the couch and sleeps at my grandmas.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Shayna! It’s likely that she has gotten used to co-sleeping with you for naps that she knows no other way to fall asleep at your house. Whereas at grandma’s, she only knows to go on the couch to nap, so that’s what she does. Hopefully, with consistency, you can set different boundaries and help her fall asleep on her own.

  5. What about the middle of the night waking? My 3.5 year old does this during bed and wakes up in the middle of the night. We’re so tired and can’t keep track of time!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi there! Unfortunately, we have to treat middle-of-the-night wake ups the same way as we would if it were earlier at the start of bedtime, even if we’re exhausted. Brace yourself earlier in the evening and almost expect that they’ll wake up and have a plan of action. Tell yourself as well that this is short term pain for long term gain and that the more consistent you can be with setting boundaries, the better they’ll sleep moving forward. Hang in there, mama!

  6. I wondered how exactly you suggest “keeping them in their room”. I only know our 3 year old is up and awake when he arrives at our bedroom door. They don’t recommend locking the doors and our 3 year old climbs over a safety gate – so is this just explaining what the expectations are?
    Thanks

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Louise! One thing you can try is putting a baby monitor in his room. Then, the second he makes a move to get out of bed, you can “talk” to him through the monitor and tell him to stay in bed. Keep doing this until he realizes that every time he tries to get out, he’ll have to get back in bed.

  7. I’m feeling frustrated at myself for stressing about my 3 year old’s sleeping pattern. She sleeps in her bed and wakes about 10pm-11pm once or twice and then cries to come into my bed. I let her and I get frustrated at myself for feeling bad. I get told that it will pass when she starts school and to enjoy it, which I do for now. But I’m frustrated that I’m stressing. Not sure if this should be my new normal now or if I am setting her up to fail?

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I can see why you’re exhausted from the middle of the night wake ups. At this point, there should be few reasons for her to wake up and come to your bed every night, other than it has become a habit that’s been enabled.

      Just like peeling off a bandaid, there might be initial discomfort when you tell her to go back to her bed, but once you’re consistent, she’ll have no choice but to stay in bed through the night. Think of it as doing her a disservice each time you bring her into bed: that’s one less opportunity for her to learn how to sleep on her own, to feel like her room and bed are safe places to be.