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Three year olds are adorable, unpredictable, maddening, and, hands down, pretty awesome. Sometimes, though, your baby doesn’t grow up to be the sleeping-through-the-night pint-sized cuddler your neighbor, sister, and hairdresser are apparently blessed with. This post will help you navigate the 3 year old sleep regression but can also be applied to any toddler going through the same challenges.
Many parents face the numerous challenges of coping with (or rather, surviving) a 3 year old with sleep issues. Whether they haven’t even tried to sleep train a baby or they have miserably failed at it, the result is usually the same – a three year old with sleeping problems can really put a strain on things and it’s not good for them either.
Did you sleep train? Even a baby who is a perfect sleeper can turn into a toddler with sleep regression. If your 3 year old is suddenly fighting bedtime, read on!
Is your little one under three? If you don’t find this post fits your little one’s sleep challenges, be sure to check out my other post: Your Guide To Baby and Toddler Sleep – Routines, Tips, and Guidelines!
Many parents assume that it’s normal for a toddler to wake up a hundred times a night, screaming bloody murder. They assume that it’s just typical. You probably don’t since you’re reading this but in case you need to hear it (read it?) – There are often external factors influencing the quality (and quantity) of sleep a three year old gets. These can range from:
- 3 year old sleep regressions
- Night terrors
- Potty training,
- Cot or crib to bed transitions
- Welcoming of a new sibling
Read on to find out how to cope with the most common toddler sleep problems and eventually blissfully enjoy the 8-hour-uninterrupted sleep you’ve been dreaming of for ages!
Toddler sleep regression explained
Sleep regression in toddlers is what you happens when your LO experiences certain changes in his sleep pattern (and, eventually, reaches new developmental milestones). It is usually accompanied by signs like frequent night waking, nap strikes, power struggles, constant bedtime (and naptime) battles, early wakeups, etc. You should, however, differentiate between the 18th month sleep regression and the (coming shortly after it) two year old sleep regression (and even the three year old sleep regression but it’s very similar). Read on for some great toddler sleep regression tips!
Is there a 3 year old sleep regression?
Somewhere between his 16th and 20th month your cute manageable baby turns to an opinionated toddler whose growing independence (and the zeal with which he fights for it) push your buttons in ways you haven’t even imagined possible.
To put it mildly, this is usually a phase in which both nighttime and naptime routines are negatively affected. For some, this will be when they have their first instance of sleep refression but for others, they will continue to sleep normally until they turn three. So yes! For many, there is indeed a sleep regression at three years old.
The best way to approach toddler sleep regression is to provide the necessary conditions for healthy sleep (both at nap time and at bedtime). There’s little to nothing else you can do to help your toddler sleep better during this regression, so do what you have to do and keep repeating to yourself that this, too, shall pass. Even if you 3 year old won’t go to sleep easily or wakes up often now, it won’t last long if you use the tips below!
Does Sleep Regression Mean You Need A New Bedtime Routine?
A common misconception is that since your 3 year old has sleep issues now, that your old bedtime or nap time routine which worked for some time is completely useless now.
Don’t fall into the trap! The truth is that you are not doing anything wrong, so you certainly don’t have to change every little thing to find the next routine that would work. You do NOT need a special 3 year old sleep schedule!
Consider this a temporary phase in which there will inevitably be toddler sleep challenges but, once it’s over, your three year old will go back to his regular sleep routine.
What could cause sleep problems and night waking?
The 3 year old sleep regression is best described with:
- nap refusal
- bedtime battles
- worsening separation anxiety
- night waking
- early wake-ups
- a deep desire in your toddler to question authority. Your authority, to be precise.
Dealing with a toddler with sleep issues is not fun. They are exhausted, you’re exhausted… it’s a bad combination and a viscous cycle!
Here are a few ways to handle a 3 year old who is suddenly fighting bedtime or nap time (but don’t worry – we go into more detail soon):
- Let your little one exercise his individuality in a controlled environment. For example, instead of asking him, “Do you want to go to the grocery store?” put things differently by asking him, “Do you want to wear the blue shoes or the green shoes at the grocery store?” This both makes him feel his opinion is important and you get it your way!
- Take it easy on the daily toddler activities. Everything is new and exciting to your 3 year old. They can easily get overwhelmed by the million new things they find out about the world, so it is up to you to read the signs of overwhelming and adjust his activities accordingly (read: simply avoid over-scheduling).
- To soothe separation anxiety and toddler fears, regularly assure your tot that everything is OK, that mommy and daddy may go to work on workdays but they always come back in the evening, etc. Use calming and comforting words at bedtime to help your little one feel secure and safe before going to sleep. Be understanding about your toddler fears as they might not be a big deal for you but they are for him!
How much sleep does your 3 year old need?
Your toddler’s need for sleep slightly varies depending on his age and not getting enough can start a cycle of poor sleep and rough days. For example, prior to his second birthday, your little one needs about 11 hours of sleep at night plus 3 hours of sleep during the day (taken in one or two naps). Nap times gradually decrease in length in time with your 2-year old taking one an-hour-and-a-half nap. Your 3-year old will need only one hour of daytime sleep to recharge his batteries. For a full breakdown on how much sleep your toddler needs (plus more sleep tips of course!), read “Your Guide To Baby and Toddler Sleep – Routines, Tips, and Guidelines“.
Toddler sleep deprivation (what it is and how to deal with it)
Toddler sleep deprivation is a condition in which your little one permanently lacks the sleep they need, becoming super active (especially past bedtime) and overtired to the extent they cannot fall asleep. This is a vicious cycle many parents enter because on the surface, it looks like your little one is full of energy.
Sleep-deprived toddlers are usually more irritable than normal, easily distracted, and falling asleep at random times (and in the most unusual places). To help your toddler get back on track with his sleep, you should follow a consistent daily and bedtime schedule routine.
Note! Establishing healthy sleep habits is vital for your little one’s health and development as lack of sleep may turn your tot to an over exhausted monster that’s constantly irritated and moody.
How do I fix my 3 year old sleep regression?
Here are the five most common 3 year old sleep problems, why they happen, and how to work through them:
1. Waking throughout the night
Unless your little one is teething or sick, sleeping through the night should be something to expect. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case as many healthy tots with no pains whatsoever still find it challenging to sleep through the night.
Middle-of-the-night toddler wake ups are usually just… a habit. In this case, delaying bedtime by 15-20 minutes might be the solution to the problem. If your little one starts waking up in the wee hours out of the blue, though, you should figure out the reason behind this new behavior.
Perhaps a new change has been introduced to his life and he is still frustrated and trying to adjust to the new circumstances? In any case, comfort your child when he calls out to you in the middle of the night and assure him everything is OK. I know it’s easier said than done but that’s just one of the many “bright” sides of parenting…
Whatever you do, I wouldn’t suggestion dealing with 3 year old sleep regression with cry it out – especially in this case.
2. Fighting Bedtime
2-year olds and 3-year olds are particularly good at fighting bedtime. Usually described as perfectly normal toddler behavior, the refusal to go to sleep can make even the most balanced parent want to tuck their face into a pillow and scream.
The trick to winning the bedtime battle depends on the reason your tot is so reluctant to go to sleep. Some of the reasons may be the inability to soothe himself, separation anxiety, hyperstimulation, testing limits, etc. Once you figure out what it is your little one is concerned with, you will have a more clear idea about what to do.
You can also try to anticipate his or her protests, requests, or tactics and preemptively solve them! Having a glass of water ready to provide the moment they ask for water for example. After a few of their tactics fail, they might give up!
3. The getting out of bed/co-sleeping issue
Many toddlers show certain preferences to their parents’ beds. And pillows. And duvets. Unless you enjoy co-sleeping with your child, this is an issue. What I call “the onesie prison break”, is an adventure in which your little one performs enviable acrobatic moves to get out of his crib, cot, or bed and attack the family bed to the dismay of his sleep-deprived parents.
My youngest used to show up in our bed and we wouldn’t notice for a while! I have no idea how he did it without triggering the baby monitor or waking us while climbing in! (Other times, I seem able to hear his eye open… ah motherhood!)
A doorknob bell might work well for letting you know when the little conquistador has escaped his room and is trying to sneak into yours. This will give you enough time to react before he’s settled comfortably into the family bed.
Some experts suggest a “bedtime pass” – this is a one-time pass that allows your little one to get out of bed only once per night (without getting into your bed, though) and ask for only one thing (be it water, a final tuck in, etc.). A snuggly friend may also do the trick – if he has one to cuddle by his side on his own bed, he might easier learn how to soothe himself and feel protected without your presence.
4. The night terrors and nightmares
First, it’s very important to make a difference between night terrors and nightmares. Night terrors take place during your child’s deep sleep phase (usually in the first few hours after they go to sleep). Nightmares take place during your child’s REM sleep phase (usually very early in the morning).
Night terrors occur during the transition from deep sleep to REM sleep and, although they look scary, they are not something to worry about as your little one doesn’t have any recollection of the night terror in the morning.
Nightmares or bad/scary dreams are usually a problem of children between the age 2 and 5 as this is the period in which their imagination levels reach their peak. Once they figure out what a dream is and how it works (as in… it’s only in your imagination and not something real), this usually becomes less of an issue.
To prevent nightmares and night terrors from happening to your toddler, keep his stress levels as low as possible, allow them plenty of time to sleep, and avoid over-scheduling as it may lead to overstimulation, over-tiredness, and hyperactivity.
5. The 6am-er
What I call the 6am-er is a 3 year old who, no matter how many times has wakened you in the wee hours, wakes up way before the sun has risen and is ready for the new day while you still try to figure out how this is even possible.
Dealing with a 6am-er is not easy. One way to approach him is to explain that it’s still not wake up time and give him the opportunity to spend some quiet time in his bed with his favorite stuffed animals or books. Another option is to use blackout curtains for his nursery so he cannot record the first sun rays as soon as they emerge on the horizon.
6. Summer / Daylight Bedtime Challenges
Getting your toddler to sleep when it’s not quite dark out yet can be tough. Read “5 Ways to Get Your Kids to Sleep During the Summer Months“.
More 3 Year Old Sleep Issue Causes
Here are some things that may trigger your three year old to have trouble sleeping. By knowing about these, you can be ready for what may come!
1. The cot to toddler bed transition
If you are moving your little one from a cot to a toddler bed, or even a crib to a cot, it’s only natural that this will affect his sleep quality to a certain extent. The new bed is unfamiliar and the transition may be difficult for your little one to digest, resulting in more frequent waking, shorter naps, and bed escapes.
In this case, try helping him get excited about the new bed and get familiar with it. Try to change only a few things at a time too. So if you picked out new sheets together to get him or her excited about the new bed, let them keep using their old pillow or blanket for a bit.
2. Potty training and sleep
“Potty training is such a wonderful period!” – said no mother, ever. Keep in mind, though, that it may be as frustrating to you as it is to your little one! This means that the uncomfortable feeling of a full bladder or a wet diaper may provoke some unexpected middle-of-the-night wakes and unearthly early morning wake ups.
Try to avoid letting them have anything to drink in the hours before bed, and make sure they are nice and dry before your bedtime routine starts.
For potty trianing tips (so that you can get past this period as painlessly as possible!), read “Potty Training Tips for Real Moms”!
3. Three year old sleep regression after a new baby
There are very few changes of circumstances as frustrating for a young kid as the welcoming of a new family member (or two). Not only is the new occupant of the house constantly crying and making funny sounds, but he is also taking up all mommy’s and daddy’s time and attention. Having a new sibling around is difficult for toddlers to realize and feel comfortable with which often leads to sleep issues like more frequent wakes and a general feeling of increased anxiety (both in the toddler and in you as a parent).
To make this transition a bit smoother, and set your kids up for a lifelong bond, read my post about how to prevent sibling jealousy! It has easy to use tips that you can start even while you are pregnant!
Was this helpful? Share your toddler sleep experiences or challenges below! in the comments.
More great sleep related posts!
- 5 Ways to Get Your Kids To Sleep During The Summer Months
- Why Is Sleep So Important for Kids And Parents
- Your Guide To Baby And Toddler Sleep
- The Key To Better Sleep While Pregnant
About The Author:
Tina loves helping other parents make well-informed decisions on her baby sleep website. She enjoys writing about her own experiences as a mom and providing reliable information about baby sleep, product reviews, and much more. Be sure to check our her site!