Recently, I have had a slew of parents contact me about their three year olds. The email is always about the same: “Can you give me some advice about my three-year-old son? He has always been a great sleeper, going right to sleep on his own and staying in his bed until it was time to wake up. This all ended last week when he suddenly refused to lay down unless my husband or I lay with him. When we get up to leave, he will wake and scream for us. The other night, we put him back to bed over 20 times and it was so exhausting that we ended up just letting him stay with us. It was horrible as he was so upset. He still naps so we talked about taking those away. What can we do?”
Unfortunately, this is a fairly common sleep issue in three year olds. And while it manifests itself around sleeping times, it actually isn’t a sleep issue at all. It’s really due to a whole slew of cognitive and behavioral developments that stem from changes that typically occur around age three:
They start to have a need for autonomy and want to be their own person, but this is confusing and a bit frightening as they still need the safety of mom and dad.
They are becoming much more social beings and are developing friendships outside of their parental relationships.
They start to develop actual fears as they begin to understand the concept of being afraid.
And most importantly, they know they can challenge their parents! They count on you to tell them right from wrong, safe from unsafe, etc., and like to test you to make sure you are there to reassure them and correct them.
With all of this going on, what’s a parent to do?
Address their fears. Choose a quiet time (preferably not surrounding sleep times) to discuss what’s going on. Tell your child that you understand they want you to be with them at bedtime as they fall asleep, but it is their job to go to sleep on their own and they can do it. Make sure they understand that you believe in them and their abilities. Validate their feelings by telling them you want to be with them, too, and you would love to add in extra cuddle time before bed or in the morning when they wake up.
Let them have some control. A big part of this behavior is stemming from your child wanting to exert their independence. So try to let them be able to make some decisions surrounding sleep. On a tangible level, let them pick out something new to exercise their decision-making needs - a new set of sheets, a new pair of PJs or a new stuffed animal. Also, let them make decisions when it comes to their own behavior. As odd as this sounds, giving them permission to exhibit behaviors that you actually don’t want - such as crying - will help these behaviors to go away because your child will know they have a choice in the matter. If you say, “It’s bedtime. Please don’t cry,” they may cry only because you told them not to. Instead, try something along the lines of: “It’s bedtime and time to go to sleep. You can choose to cry or not to cry but either way, it is time for you to go to sleep.”
Make sure they understand there are rules. As mentioned, this is the most important part. Rules actually make our children feel safe. Kids challenge us to see how far they can push, but also to make sure you are going to be there to keep them in check. So it is critical they understand there are rules and you will enforce them. Consistency is also key as it will allow them to know exactly what is expected. I find a ‘Sleep Rules’ chart is really helpful at this age. Create a chart which details your expectations of them at bedtime - something like: I will take my bath, put my PJs on, read a book and then go to sleep and stay in my bed until morning. Allow your child to color or decorate the chart with stickers, etc., to make it their own. Explain to them that sleep is very important for them and also important for mommy and daddy, and that as a big boy or a big girl, they need to sleep on their own. Their reward for following the sleep rules is they will feel great! Remind them that sleep makes them feel wonderful, and it allows everyone to have the energy to do lots of fun things during the day.
In regard to naptime, as kids near three, parents tend to start to let their schedules slide a bit later and they slowly become super overtired. Overtiredness really fuels this behavior. Make sure they are going down for their nap as close to 1pm as possible (which I am sure they still need - and I would not drop at this point while resolving this issue) and make sure bedtime is very early until this is fixed - as close to within four hours of them waking from their last nap as possible. If you think your child is truly done napping, make sure you keep a rest time intact at the time nap time was occurring and bedtime will need to be moved much earlier to make up for this missed sleep.
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