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The 3-Year-Old Sleep Regression Sucks

3 Year Old Sleep Regression Causing Night Wakings, and Bedtime Battles?

My three-year-old daughter has entered the dreaded “sleep regression.” She’s been waking up in the middle of the night and refusing to go back to sleep. Thankfully, my daughter is now 10, but I remember that phase quite well when there wasn’t enough coffee to get me through the day.  If you’re feeling the same, I know you’re exhausted, and I’m happy to help you get through it!

This blog will provide tips for getting your toddler’s sleep back on track. The best advice I had then was knowing that this phase would eventually end, and she would be sleeping again soon (which she did). This can be a difficult phase, but remember, every day gets better!

Common Sleep Issues at 3 Years Old

Regardless of whether your 3-year-old was an amazing sleeper as a baby or your child never was a great sleeper, you may see new sleep issues emerge, such as:

    • Bedtime Battles
    • Multiple Night Wakings
    • Will Only Sleep With Parent In the Room
    • Nap Strikes
    • Early Morning Wakings

 

Is A Toddler Sleep Regression To Blame?

Sleep regressions are a thing.  Sleep Regressions are caused by physical and mental development (have you heard about wonder weeks?).  Especially at 3 years old, you may see an explosion of language and cognitive abilities.

Could developmental changes cause disruptions in sleep? Sure. Of course, toddler sleep regressions can happen.  But, as parents, we assume that these changes are the only reason when sleep issues emerge, but that’s not the case, especially when behavioral components are at bay.

thE SIMPLE REASON FOR SLEEp DISRUPTIONS AT 3 YEARS OLD

Exhausted parents ask me all the time, “what happened to my sweet child’s precious sleep”?  And, I have one easy answer to explain why your 2, 3, or 4 year old can call out and fight sleep.  Ready to hear the answer?

BECAUSE THEY CAN!

I know that answer isn’t as scientific as you’re looking for, but we know that sleep issues arise when children learn to test the boundaries.

Sure your toddler is growing and developing and surging in mental capacity.  Your child is saying words, exploring their surroundings, and most importantly, testing their capabilities to get what they want.

Examples of a toddler testing the boundaries

  • Your child wants another cookie – they cry, and you unassumingly throw more cookies to stop the crying.
  • You leave the playroom to do laundry, and your child who was independently playing starts to freak out that you left.  You run right back in.
  • You are playing peacefully at the park, and your preschooler throws a huge tantrum when you are attempting to leave.  You give her another 15 minutes of playtime.

All of the above examples show you that your child is starting to understand their feelings.  Now more than ever is a time to implement loving limits.

Fixing 3 Year Old’s Sleep Doesn’t Mean Just Crying It Out

Reframing your thoughts around sleep can help you feel like the worst mom in the world to a mom who actually cares for your child.

Yes, your child wants to stay up late at night, might protest when being put down, or starts screaming their head off when you say “no” after the 5th book request.  But, when you’re focusing on fixing sleep – ending the routine with the last book, or last tuck in, empowers your child to sleep on their own.

Methods To Soothe Your 3 Year Old:

Any method to help your child sleep is fair game, including:

  • Checking Intervals
  • Sitting With Your Child
  • Not Checking At All (hey internet people, no judgment!)

The key is that you have to be ready to be consistent before starting a sleep plan.

You’ll feel really good when your 3-year-old is sleeping 12 hours at night and in a great mood because he’s getting so much more sleep.

How Long Does The 3 Year Old Sleep Regression Last?

Not unlike many other sleep regressions (you’re probably heard of the 2-Year-Old Sleep Regression!), you’re dying to know when you’ll get your sweet, little 3-year-old back?!  In my sleep consulting practice, I talk to many exhausted parents who can’t stand another night.  My advice is always pretty simple.

If the sleep regression has been going longer than more than 2 weeks, it may not be a sleep regression after all. Baby sleep regressions are due to cognitive growth and development.  Yes, your toddler and preschoolers are still growing and developing, but outside influences are largely at play (i.e., testing the limits).

So use the 2-week mark as a litmus test when deciding if your child is going through a sleep regression.  

Examples:

Vacations Mess Up 3-Year-Old Sleep

If you go on vacation to Disney World, sleep got off because you saw the midnight fireworks each night.  2 Weeks Later, your child is still staying up late and is up multiple times per night.

Sorry, it’s not a sleep regression.  It’s a bad habit.

Teething Causes 3-Year-Old Wakings

We all know that teething can cause havoc in sleep.  But, many parents are always quick to blame teeth as the cause of all sleep issues (me included!).  Teething doesn’t usually throw sleep off a cliff, but it can cause pain which could cause a temporary disruption in sleep.

Right around the 3 Year Mark, the 2nd Molars can erupt.  If your 3-year-old is up for 3 nights and you need to give pain reliever.  And then, 3 days later, your child starts sleeping through without any more night wakings.; Well, that actually could be a sleep regression!  (See, it was short-lived!)

The Transition from Crib to Bed Causes Issues at 3 Year Old.

If you transition from a crib to a bed, your child can now leave their room and continue to leave the room 4,000 times per night.  2 months later, things are still chaotic.  It’s Not A Sleep Regression. It’s a Habit.

Total Sleep Matter At 3 Years Old

In the next section of this blog, I will share the most common culprits of sleep issues when sleep gets messed up at 3 years old.

I’m sharing a simple math problem for you to decipher your own child’s sleep issues:

  1. What time did your child nap?
  2. What time did your child go to bed?
  3. What time did your child wake up?

Now, I’ll share a conversation I had with the parents of Milo, my most recent client.  Milo started fighting naps, waking at night, and, of course, going to bed too late and waking too early.

In the hopes of fixing Milo’s sleep, these exhausted parents moved bedtime from 7:00 pm, but now Milo won’t fall asleep until 8:30 pm.  Mike has 3-night wakings (some short, some long), requiring parents to come in and sleep on Milo’s floor.  Milo now wakes up at 5:30 am.  But the good news, Milo still takes a 2-hour nap.

So now do the math:

Overnight sleep = 9 hours (even less if you factored out the night wakings)

Total Sleep = 2 Hour Nap + 9 Hours Overnight = 11 Hours.  You have one overtired kiddo!  Before the sleep issues arose, the boy was sleeping for 13 hours.

As time goes on with poor sleep, Milo is now going into sleep debt.  He’s making sleep harder and harder, and he’s fighting sleep more.  Milo is exhausted (and not getting as much sleep as he needs).

How much sleep does a 3-year-old need?

I know, every 3 year old is different, but I’d argue that a typical 3-Year-Old Should be getting as close to 12 hours of total sleep each day.  Sure, if you’re getting a 2-hour nap + 10 hours of sleep at night, that may be enough sleep for Milo.

But, you always have to decide if your child is getting the most amount of sleep that they can get and need:

  1. Your child acts pleasantly throughout the day.
  2. Your child doesn’t fight sleep like it’s his job. (don’t worry, I’m not expecting perfection)
  3. Your child doesn’t wake up at night.

Only you can decide how much sleep your child needs – but keep aiming for as much sleep as possible with a goal of 12 hours.

Your Child Won’t Nap Because of the 3-Year-Old Nap Regression?

In Milo’s example above, he was taking a great nap but sleeping awful at night.  But, not every 3 year old shows the same signs.  I’d say that it’s not uncommon to see a missed nap as the first sign of regression or change in sleep.

Many kids now realize that the world is much cooler outside than in their own room, so they start to assert their independence in the hopes that you will allow them to attempt the nap.

Sleep Tips from a professional sleep consultant:  Take the pressure off the nap.  Tell your child that they are going to rest.  You can allow them to play with toys or read books.  They need to rest their bones.  If your child is upset, set a timer via a tot clock with a minimum rest time of 1 hour.

At 3 Years Old, if night sleep is solid, the nap probably isn’t as important as when he was younger.  Welcome to nap purgatory. I won’t just ditch the nap, but try and find how often your child needs to nap each week to act like a decent human being.

Is The 3-Year-Old Sleep Regression Causing Night Wakings?  

So in some cases, your 3-year-old may or may not fight sleep, but you may start experiencing night wakings.  Night wakings are probably the most painful of the toddler sleep challenges I deal with because not only is your child not getting enough sleep – but now it affects YOUR sleep.

Night wakings can be caused by fears (I had a nightmare) or potty (I need to pee!).  But, many times, your child night wakes because they can, or they’ve developed some bad habits along the way.  (I wake = I yell!)

Sleep Tips from a professional sleep consultant:  Night wakings are rough.  (Sorry, that probably didn’t make you feel any better?)  Take a look at how much sleep your child is getting and try to bring bedtime earlier since night wakings can be caused when overtired.  When you respond in the middle of the night, pick a method and try to keep things short and sweet.  The middle of the night is not time to negotiate, plead, or reason with an overtired 3-year-old.

Is the 3-Year-Old Sleep Regression Causing Bedtime Battles?

I’m actually rooting that those of you reading this blog only have to deal with the bedtime battles part of the 3-year-old sleep regression.  That would mean that naps could still be intact and that you aren’t dealing with the worst part, night wakings.

Bedtime battles aren’t fun, and I don’t want them for you – but I can help you be realistic of the toddler sleep challenges you may face.

If you’re going through bedtime battles, ask yourself these question:

  1. Is my bedtime at the right time?
  2. Did I leave enough time to get through all of the bedtime steps?
  3. Does my child need a little more attention from me at bedtime?

Usually, I find that an important bedtime routine sets the stage for a peaceful bedtime routine.  The routine doesn’t need to be too short or too sweet.  I actually think a 30-minute routine is completely fine.  Get through the bedtime routine steps in a peaceful enough way.  Try to keep the peace as much as possible by using play.  (i.e., if you’re struggling with brushing teeth, pretend your cookie monster is looking for the sugar germs in her mouth.)

Once the bedtime routine is over – it’s over.  Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t ever go into his room again.  When you go into your child’s room time and time again, it just shows your child that they can keep calling out or leaving the room.

Try giving your child a pass for one more hug after the routine is over.  Once that pass is used, you’re going to need to stick to your word.

Conclusion

Remember, I had a daughter who fought sleep like it was her job as a 3-year-old.  So, if you’re reading this article as an exhausted parent, I empathize and remember what you’ve been feeling!   Now it’s your turn to take some of the actionable tips to get your 3-year-olds sleep back on track.  Hopefully, it’s only a short 2-week phase.

Curious:  What advice do you have when dealing with the 3-Year-Old Sleep Regression?  Do you think your 3-year-old went through a regression or was it just bad behaviors rearing their head?

 

Susie Parker

Susie Parker is founder of Sleep Baby Love and a Certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant through the Family Sleep Institute. When Susie's not ridding the world of sleepless families, she loves spending time with her two girls that have given her a ton of real world sleep experience head on.

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