“Darling, you have to stay in your own bed from now on” I whispered as I lifted my daughter wearily into her bed for the… what felt like the thousandth time. I then left the room, my eyelids were drooping by now as I sat with my back against the wall outside their bedroom. This was tiring. “It’s the first night of trying” I told myself “It will get better”. Then I open my eyes to my worried daughter tapping me “Daddy, Daddy, wake up”. I was so tired I had actually fallen asleep sat outside her room!
Thankfully, only two nights later my 3 year old did start sleeping in her bed and staying asleep. It was a rough first night but I’m glad I kept with the sleep training method on that long first night. The change, for the better, was dramatic. If you are having trouble getting your 3 year old to sleep and stay asleep in their own bed. I hope to help you using the hours of research I have done, my first-hand experience and mistakes! To make your life easier.
THE 3 YEAR OLD SLEEP REGRESSION
Remember all those sleep regressions when your child was a baby? One day they would be sleeping through and the next crying every hour through the night. I remember surviving on such little sleep and dreading bedtimes. The good news is that at 3 years old your 3 year old will go through their last major sleep regression. But how do you know for sure?
Signs of a sleep regression in a 3 year old:
- They don’t want you to leave when you are tucking them in at night.
- Constant stalling at bedtime, one last toilet trip? One last drink? One last story? Sound familiar?
- Getting up in the night and coming to sleep in your bed.
- Starts to wake earlier than usual in the morning.
Your 3 year old is growing up. They are gaining more independence. They will gladly tell you “No” and order you around to suit their needs. Their understanding of the world is growing. With growth also comes new fears and worries. They are realizing that the world is bigger and maybe a little scarier than they used to think. Their imaginations are expanding at an enormous rate. This is the time when monsters move in under the bed.
Parents like yourself might just put this down to having a “poor sleeper”. But almost all children who don’t suffer from rare medical disorders can be good sleepers2. It just takes the right approach and patience. I have done the research and more than likely there are proven solutions to your child’s sleeping problems. I have tested them with my own children so I know they work. Your child will sleep well again.
DOES MY 3 YEAR OLD HAVE A SLEEP PROBLEM?
Is one of the most common questions as a parent to ask about your child. It takes time for children to learn and physically develop the skills needed to sleep like an adult. I used to ask myself the same question multiple times a night when my kids sleep poorly, the screaming and crying get to you. I think losing sleep and still needing to carry on with everyday life is one of the hardest things about being a parent.
So does your 3 year old have a sleep problem?
If your 3 year old’s sleep is causing you or them an issue then they have a sleep problem2. This doesn’t mean they are poor sleepers. Many sleeping issues can be solved for most 3 year olds using sleep training. Sleeping problems don’t always mean that there is something wrong with your child. They may need to develop the necessary skills to have a good night’s sleep.
Here is a list of the most common sleep issues according to Ferber. If you recognize any of these issues in your child don’t worry. I can help you try and solve them:
- Difficulty falling asleep.
- Waking up in the night and being unable to get back to sleep without your help.
- Waking up too early or too late.
- Falling asleep too early or too late.
- DIfficulty waking & being sleepy during the day (Outside of naps).
- Sleep terrors, bedwetting and sleepwalking.
HOW MUCH SLEEP DOES MY 3 YEAR OLD NEED?
The National Sleep Foundation guidelines for 3 year olds is that they need to get 10-13 hours sleep in every 24 hour period.
You may want to keep a “Sleep diary” for your 3 year old and see how much, when and where they get their sleep on an average day. It may allow you to see if they have an issue and give you more of an idea of what is causing you problems.
MY 3 YEAR OLD HAS A SLEEPING PROBLEM: WHAT SHOULD I DO?
Don’t panic, it’s very common. You’ve recognized the problem. That is the first step to tackling it. Next, you should look at what professionals call “Sleep hygiene”. Which are a list of basic but important guidelines that make up the foundation of a good night’s sleep.
Once you have those basics all checked off, if your 3 year old is still struggling to sleep or stay in bed then it is time to move on to an effective research backed method like the Graduated Extinction Method of sleep training (Don’t worry, I will explain in full). Which was found to be one of the most effective out of 52 treatment studies5.
Let’s get started turning your sleepless nights into lazy lay ins!
THE EXACT METHODS I USED TO GET MY 3 YEAR OLDS TO SLEEP AND STAY ASLEEP
PART I: SLEEP HYGIENE: BEDTIME BASICS
Let’s start by covering the basics of the foundation for a good night’s sleep for your 3 year old. If you don’t get these right, no fancy methods of sleep training will ever work. Take this list and make sure you are doing your best to apply every point for a restful nights sleep.
- Consistent Bedtimes/Waketimes: The circadian rhythm (your body’s natural daily sleeping schedule) is made stronger by consistency. So it is a great idea to keep your child’s bedtimes/waketimes at the same time as much as possible throughout the week and even on weekends. This will allow you to harness the rhythms natural power. For example, a late night or long weekend lay in can throw off your child’s sleeping rhythm for days.
- Bedroom = Sleep: Try and keep their bedroom for sleeping in as much as possible. Avoid letting them play for long periods in their room and especially on their bed. You don’t want to let them associate their room and bed with wakefulness and play. You want the association to be fixed to sleep and rest.
- Temperature: I know I like to keep my little ones warm but a hot and stuffy room isn’t great for their sleep. You want to keep the room cool at around 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (or 18 to 22 degrees Celsius) which is perfect. (We have this digital thermometer from Amazon in their room to make sure we get it just right).
- No distractions: Keep distractions in their room to an absolute minimum. I personally don’t allow TV’s or games in my kids rooms. Their bedroom needs to be quiet and distraction-free if they are going to sleep well.
- Create a bedtime routine: Bedtime routines create strong signals that it is now time to go to sleep. It gives your 3 year old adequate time to wind down from their day. It should be predictable and soothing and be around 20-45 minutes long with 3-4 relaxing activities. (See my free bedtime routine planner).
- Avoid being active before bed: Cut out the TV watching and don’t play any active games before bed. They encourage your child to be more awake. Give them adequate time to wind down. There are plenty of relaxing activities they can do before bed like reading, a bath or drawing quietly.
- Daily physical activity: Physical activities like outdoor games and running around actually help your 3 year old sleep better at night. Experts recommend at least 60 minutes per day of energetic play at minimum and more is better6.
- Morning sunlight: When people are exposed to sunlight in the morning, they enter into sleep more easily at night3. So try letting your 3 year old get a little bit of light in the mornings (While practicing sun safety). Don’t worry if you live in an area without much sun, it doesn’t need to be strong sunlight. It will work even on an overcast day. If you don’t have easy access to outside areas then eat breakfast in the sunniest room of your house.
- Avoid caffeine: Caffeine can stay in your child’s system for longer than you might expect. So avoid foods and drinks that contain it in the afternoon/evening. Some sodas and chocolate contain caffeine. So you might need to keep an eye on what your child is eating before bed.
- Into bed drowsy, but awake: This is a mistake I used to make. I would let my girls fall asleep and carry them up to bed. But this doesn’t give them the opportunity to practice falling asleep in bed alone when they wake up in the middle of the night. It’s an important skill they needed to learn as everyone wakes up briefly in between sleep cycles. If your 3 year old has trouble self-soothing then they will wake up at these times and then find it difficult to fall back asleep.
- Favorite toy: If your child has a favorite toy or blanket then make sure they have it when they go to bed. Children are comforted by what experts call a “transitional” object. It helps them relax, feel safe and secure enough to fall asleep peacefully.
Try these tips for or at least a week or ideally two. If you find that you are still experiencing problems with their sleep then it’s time to try the most effective sleep training method I have found that worked wonders for me and my girls. The Graduated Extinction Method.
PART II: I HAVE TRIED THE BASICS BUT WHAT NOW?: GRADUATED EXTINCTION METHOD
The graduated extinction method of sleep training is based around giving your child time to fall asleep on their own. It still allows your child comfort from you at timed intervals. These intervals get longer as the process goes on. It is a gentle method to teach your child how to fall asleep on their own without your help. It was developed by Dr. Richard Ferber and I learned the method from his excellent book: Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (Amazon link).
Of all the methods tested by a research group headed by J MIndell PhD. (A psychology professor, author and child sleep expert). It was found that the extinction and graduated extinction methods along with parent education about the basics of sleep hygiene were the most successful methods of sleep training for 3 year olds with sleep issues. 94% of parents reported that using these methods improved their children’s sleep. The majority of these parents said that the improvements were still present 3-6 months later5.
GRADUATED EXTINCTION METHOD: STEP-BY-STEP
- Unlearn cues: Your child has already learned many cues for sleeping. Some of which may not be beneficial. For example, back rubbing, feeding, sucking, etc. can all be great methods of falling asleep for your child but the problem arises in the middle of the night when they can’t soothe themselves and they need you to fall asleep again. You need to help your 3 year old unlearn those cues and learn newer and more useful ones.
- Children adapt quickly: The first few nights are going to be difficult. So mentally prepare yourself. The good news is children adapt quickly. Our 3 year olds started sleeping much better after only a few nights of sleep training. On nights one and two, I was left wondering if it was worth all the effort, lost sleep and crying. Thankfully the negatives didn’t last long. Ferber says that improvements should be seen anywhere from a few days to a week2.
- Be prepared for the crying: Changing a habit is hard for any child. So there will be a lot of crying and protesting. Be prepared, stay calm and remember it is only for a very short period. Think about how well everyone will be sleeping next week when it is all over.
- Bedtime: Make sure this is appropriate for their age and is at the same time every night. Resist any attempts by your 3 year old to stall going to bed. For a more in-depth explanation see the Bedtime for 3 year olds section.
- Bedtime routine: Carry out your set bedtime routine to give your 3 year old ample time to wind down. Make it enjoyable for both of you. Time to relax and bond together. Your children will enjoy being close to you and actually want to get involved. (Download a copy of my free bedtime routine planner).
- Put them to bed sleepy but awake: Don’t put your child to bed asleep or they won’t have any time to practice falling asleep on their own. Put them to bed when drowsy and showing signs of being sleepy but make sure they are still awake. This should give them lots of opportunities to practice going to sleep. Which will come in handy when they need to do it for themselves.
- Child gate: If your 3 year old has changed from a cot to a bed then you might want to invest in a child gate (Amazon link). If your 3 year old constantly wakes and tries to get in bed with you then a gate will be essential to their success in learning to fall asleep in their own room.
When you have everything ready, you then put your child to bed as normal. Make sure they have their favorite toy/blanket as a comforter. Tuck them in, kiss goodnight and leave the room. At this point, you will probably find that your child starts to cry out. Don’t enter the room immediately. The time between them starting to cry and you entering the room will be dependent on the following chart:
Ferber’s Soothing Schedule
|Day||First Wait(Minutes)||Second Wait(Minutes)||Third Wait(Minutes)||Subsequent(Minutes)|
Source: Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Ferber, R.
So for example, on day one. If your 3 year old starts to cry immediately as soon as you put them to bed. Then you should time 3 minutes before you re-enter the room to soothe them. When you do go back to soothe them, try not to pick them up. You can use other methods of soothing like a hand on their chest or shushing. Only spend around 1-2 minutes with them at a time. The goal is to reassure them that you are close by and they haven’t been abandoned. Not to stop them crying or try and get them to sleep.
I found the first and second nights the hardest. It seemed like they would never get to sleep. It was very hard listening to them cry and not trying to soothe them immediately. Then like magic, from the 3rd night onwards there was a drastic improvement! I could hear them wake up, start to fuss a little and then silence. They would go back to sleep, I was ecstatic!
If your child wakes in the night, start the waiting times again from the start of the day they are currently on. So if it is day 2 and they wake up in the night. Soothe them, then wait 5 mins for the first time and so on.
If your child wakes up at around 5-6am, get up and start your day as normal.
I hope you have the same success with this method that I had. I am thankful for every restful night’s sleep that we manage now. Sleep deprivation is no joke, I don’t know how many times I tried to put the milk in the cupboard or the bread in the refrigerator.
THE RABBIT THAT WANTS TO FALL ASLEEP
I want to make a special mention for a lovely bedtime story that we sometimes used for our twins to help them fall asleep as part of their bedtime routine. They loved it and I couldn’t write this article without at least letting you know about it. Go ahead a give it a try. It is sold as a lovely book (Amazon Link). We sometimes listened to it all together at bedtime through this YouTube video. Enjoy!
COMMON SLEEPING QUESTIONS
When should a 3 year old go to bed?
At a time of natural sleep onset, which is usually sometime around 6:00pm-8:00pm for a child who is 3 years old. Your child’s natural circadian rhythm includes a period of wakefulness around 1 hour before the time of their natural sleep onset. So avoid putting them to bed at this time. That’s why daily routines work so well with your child’s natural body clock.
How do I get my 3 year old to stay in bed all night?
You use the basic sleep hygiene and gradual extinction method that I have described above. If your child continually gets up in the night and comes to your bed. Then you will need to buy a child gate and install it on the door to their room. This will mean they will stay in their own room and bed. It will also give you time to come to them and soothe them before they can creep in bed with you. It also stops your child from any dangerous night wandering.
How many hours should my 3 year old sleep?
National sleep foundation guidelines are 10-13 hours sleep in any 24 hour period7.
Sleep regression at 3 years old?
Yes, the sleep regression at 3 years old is the last of the major sleep regressions that your child will experience. Your child starts to feel more fear and worry about their newly developing imagination. You could take time out in the day to ask about your child’s fears and worries and do your best to dispel them.
Some people might have forgotten what sleep regressions are like so this can be a rude awakening. Sleep deprivation for parents is tough. But don’t worry, use the methods that I have detailed above. After all, it’s only temporary and the sleep training should help and have everyone back to sleeping normally in no time at all.
Help, my 3 year old is sleep walking/talking?
Sleep talking isn’t a problem. Unless it is consistently waking your child up. This could be night terrors, which are quite common in children who are 3 years old. Their newly developing imaginations are to blame. Take time in the day to talk to them about their fears and worries.
Sleepwalking is more of an issue due to safety reasons. If you find them sleepwalking, take them back to bed. It might be another good reason to have a child gate installed onto their door.
Can I give melatonin to my 3 year old?
No, It is not advisable to give melatonin to your 3 year old child to help with their sleep. Although some studies have shown there is little issue with short term use. Some children reported adverse side effects which ceased after the melatonin was stopped1. Melatonin is also not approved as a supplement for children by the FDA. More studies are needed before there is enough proof that melatonin is safe for children.
If you are thinking of giving melatonin to your 3 year old to help with their sleep, I would strongly advise you to seek the advice of a medical professional like your doctor.
Why is my 3 year old waking up at night?
Both children and adults have multiple set periods of sleep every night. These are called sleep cycles and children have between 2-6 of them every night4. When a sleep cycle comes to an end, it is normal for most people to wake briefly and then go back to sleep. The trouble for some 3 year olds is that they haven’t yet developed the skills to get themselves back to sleep. So they wake up fully and frequently through the night. The chart below shows the average frequency that children wake up during the night (Shown by the black peaks).
This is why sleep training is important. You need to give your 3 year old the skills to be able to get themselves back to sleep after the end of a sleep cycle.
Key points to remember:
- It’s likely that your child isn’t a “poor sleeper” just that they need some practice and sleep training.
- Your 3 year old has a sleeping problem if it is causing a problem to either of your lives. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. With the correct knowledge and a bit of patience. In most cases, it can be fixed, and pretty quickly.
- The most effective method for improving your 3 year old’s sleep that I found was a combination of sleep hygiene education (Getting the basics right) and an extinction method such as Ferber’s Graduated Extinction method of sleep training.
- Stick with the method, nights one and two are by far the hardest. Don’t let yourself give up. Nights three and four onwards might be a pleasant surprise.
My heart goes out to anyone suffering from sleep deprivation because their child is having trouble sleeping. I know all about it, I’ve been there. It’s one of the most difficult aspects of parenting. I am confident, if you use the same methods that I did, you have a high chance of success. Rather than waking up and starting the day already feeling tired. You will wake up feeling happy and refreshed, and so will your 3 year old.
Please check out my article on napping for 3 year olds. As it is vital for your child’s overall sleeping routine and is very important for getting a good night’s sleep.
1. Barrett JR, Tracy DK, Giaroli G. To sleep or not to sleep: a systematic review of the literature of pharmacological treatments of insomnia in children and adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. (2013)
2. Ferber, R. Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. (2006). Touchstone; Revised, Expanded edition.
3. Mead MN. Benefits of sunlight: a bright spot for human health [published correction appears in Environ Health Perspect. 2008 May;116(5):A197]. Environ Health Perspect.
4. Mindell, J. Owens, J. A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep: Diagnosis and Management of Problems. (2015). LWW; Third edition.
5. Mindell JA, Kuhn B, Lewin DS, Meltzer LJ, Sadeh A; American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Behavioral treatment of bedtime problems and night wakings in infants and young children. (2006). Sleep.