So, you thought you were out of the woods concerning sleep regressions, eh? Not quite. There is, yet another, sleep regression, known as the 3 year old sleep regression, headed your way. Only this time, your child is old enough, not only to cry out after you, but to pinpoint why exactly you should stay by their bedside, or why they shouldn’t have to go to bed when you’ve asked them to.
So, what should you do when you notice 3 year old sleeping issues? We’re glad you asked!
Why Is My 3 Year Old Waking Up at Night?
When it comes to your preschooler, you may find yourself asking, “Why is my 3 year old waking up at night?”
The question isn’t at all uncommon, and is, indeed, a part of the expected 3 to 3.5 year old sleep regression.
Does every three year old experience the regression? No. But by and large, many parents are finding the stress of getting a toddler to sleep, coupled with the stress of, likely, having dealt with sleep issues for the majority of the child’s young life, simply unbearable.
The good news is, this regression is probably the last regression your child will encounter. While the 3-month, 8-month and even 18-month sleep regressions are all tied to changes in sleep patterns and major developmental milestones, much of the 3 year old sleep regression can be attributed to your child’s imagination and language development and their will to use it.
Language and Imagination
If you are tired of dealing with 3 year old sleep issues, take heart. Knowing what is going on and putting a name to it is half the battle.
Having said that, toddlers of this age are more advanced than they once had been. Their independence is flourishing as they take on new challenges and become enthralled with new things. Also, your little one’s imagination is growing and will manifest itself during imaginative play times, whether they are by themselves, with you or with friends.
As with anything, however, too much of a good thing is never of any benefit. An overactive imagination can leave your little one reeling, especially if they have been inadvertently exposed to movies, images or songs that scare them.
When alone in their room at night, their mind may wonder, naturally, since it is dark, and you aren’t around. Your child may begin to feel genuinely afraid and may take this opportunity to call after you, cry or even proceed into your room, all in the middle of the night.
In addition to an expanding imagination ruining a good night’s rest for you both comes the acquisition of language. Your child is learning that he or she can exercise a level of control by making requests or demands using their words. As such, your 3 year old is likely to beg you not to leave their room at night, or to make one too many requests in an attempt to stay up way past their bedtime. All of this ends up leaving you exhausted, not only for you, but for your 3 year old as well.
3 Year Old Sleep Schedule and Sleep Habits
Sleeping habits for preschool aged children can be hard to pin down. This can be due to a variety of factors, one of which is nap time. While most children start fighting naps around the age of 2, they aren’t truly ready to drop their nap until they are at least 3 years old. Nevertheless, even a 3 year old may need additional sleep. You may even notice that your little one does fine without a nap one day, but is cranky when he or she doesn’t have his or her nap, the next.
Though confusing, it can help to remember that 3 year old children still need about 11-13 hours of sleep per day. So, if your child doesn’t get that amount of sleep in one stretch at night, he or she is likely to still need a nap. A typical sleep schedule for toddlers might include going to bed between 7 to 9 o’clock at night. Some may need to go to sleep earlier, such as those who aren’t taking naps, and some may fall asleep later.
For more information on how and when to drop naps, check out our blog.
How to Get a Three Year Old to Sleep
In order to get your 3 year old to sleep at night, consider the following options:
- A Strong Bedtime Routine – We’re sure you’ve heard this a hundred times, but it still rings true. Staying consistent with your bedtime routine is crucial for preparing your little one for bed. Consider making a hearty dinner, taking a bath, reading a book, and even discussing your general expectations in a positive and upbeat manner, a nightly habit. You may even take advantage of your 3 year old’s need for independence, by allowing them to take on opportunities to brush their own hair or take on other grooming tasks by themselves at night!
- Nightlight – For the imaginative and fearful child, you may consider purchasing a nightlight. Just be sure that the nightlight is dim enough to induce sleep and doesn’t emit any blue or green rays, as these types often signal the brain that it is time to wake. Rather, look for dim, red or warm glow night lights such as the one here.
- Set Timer – Got a little one who screams every time you leave his or her bedside? Tell your child that you’ll stay, but only for an allotted amount of time. Once time is up, diligently get up, give your child a kiss and dismiss yourself. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised at what a little extra cuddle or talk time can do to relieve your child of his or her fears. Some parents even suggest doing this while the lights are already out, as this brings a certain comfort level to being in the dark.
- Quiet Toys – Sometimes, what makes 3 year old’s sleep isn’t about some trick or clever plan, but rather, to simply wait until he or she is sleepy! That doesn’t mean you should allow your child to stay up with you all hours of the night, however. Adults need their time, too! Rather, put your little one down for sleep at the appointed time, but allow him or her to play or read quietly until he or she falls asleep. Not comfortable with the idea of your child busting out the LEGOS at 9:00 pm? We don’t blame you. If you only want your child to have access to stuffed animals, books, quiet puzzles and the like at night, consider putting these items in a special “quiet time” box. You can only retrieve this at night. This way, your child can easily entertain themselves until they feel sleepy, without being overstimulated.
- Rewards – Some things never get old, and rewards are one of them. Rewards for staying in bed at night can be as simple as going for ice cream the next day, or can be as elaborate as an ongoing sticker chart. Whatever you do, be consistent with the reward and don’t cave in if your child doesn’t meet expectations.
- Consequences – Along with rewards, come appropriate consequences. Many parents like to focus on the positive by doling out rewards only, but parents often experience success by combining both consequences and rewards. Ideas vary, but may include taking away television the next day, revoking iPad privileges or removing special opportunities. You can even tie consequences in with your sticker chart, if you choose to use one.
- Devise a Plan – No matter what external rewards you come up with for your child, the number one indicator of successful sleep training isn’t the child, but the parent. As such, you must ensure that you are ready to take on the task of training your child to stay in bed, as well be ready to stay consistent. Know what methods you will use if your child meets your expectations, and what you will do if they don’t.
- Stay Consistent – This brings us to our next point. Consistency is key! No matter what plan you choose, you must stick to it in order for it to work. If your child knows that you will give in some days and other days you won’t, they’ll always work to manipulate you until you do, finally, give in. Therefore, if you notice that your child has gotten out of bed, you should promptly get up and gently place them back in their own bed. Do this as many times as is necessary, until your child forsakes the habit. This will be exhausting at first, but, if you remain consistent, you should see improvement within as little as a few days. Want to take it a step further? You may consider putting bells on your door so that when your little one tries to sneak in, you’ve heard them long before they’ve made their way in to lie next to you.
- Physical Restrictions – Last but not least, you may consider physically constricting your child to his or her room. Though this isn’t everyone’s favourite method, it can be extremely helpful in keeping your little one in bed, and most importantly, to keep him or her safe at night. To do this, you may purchase a baby gate or simply lock your child’s door. Some parents use the threat of a locked door or baby gate as a bartering tool, saying, “If you can stay in your bed and stay quiet, I’ll keep the door open. If you cry or get out of bed, I will close the door shut.” No matter which method you use, just be sure to do what you say…and mean it!
Craving even more sleep tips? Take a peek at the National Health Service’s recommendations for even more ideas for getting your little one some undisrupted sleep at night.
Your 3 Year Old Needs Sleep…And So Do You!
All in all, it is important to remember that, although you certainly need your sleep, your preschooler needs it even more so. Studies show that youngsters need their sleep to learn, develop and grow, and as such, permitting chaos around the issue of bedtime is a no-go.
Remember, no matter what method you choose to keep your three year old under the covers at night, you must stay consistent. The more firm and unmovable you are, the faster your child will learn to accept the new expectations and conform to them. So, go ahead, lay some ground rules. Just be sure to affirm the positive and celebrate any small victories along the way!
So, here’s to great sleep…for everyone!