Recently I have had a slew of parents contact me about their 3 year olds. The email is always about the same: “Can you give me some advice about my 3-year-old son? He has always been a great sleeper, going right so 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 3 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 3:
1.) 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.
2.) They are becoming much more social beings and are developing friendships outside of their parental relationships.
3.) They start to develop actual fears as they begin to understand the concept of being afraid.
4.) 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 that you are there to reassure them and correct them.
With all of this going on, what’s a parent to do?
- Address His Fears
Choose a quiet time (preferably not surrounding sleep times) to discuss what’s going on. Tell him that you understand that he wants you to be with him at bedtime as he falls asleep, but it is his job to go to sleep on his own and that he can do it. Make sure he understands that you believe in him and his abilities. Validate his feelings by telling him that you want to be with him too, and you would love to add in extra cuddle time before bed or in the morning when he wakes up.
- Let Him Have Some Control
A big part of this behavior is stemming from him wanting to exert his independence. So try to let him be able to make some decisions surrounding sleep. On a tangible level, let him pick out something new to exercise his decision making needs – a new set of sheets, a new pair of PJ’s or a new stuffed animal. Also, let him make decisions when it comes to his own behavior. As odd as this sounds, giving him permission to exhibit behaviors that you actually don’t want – such as crying – will help these behaviors to go away because he will know he has a choice in the matter. If you say, “its bedtime please don’t cry”, he may cry only because you told him not to. Instead try something along the lines of this dialog – “It’s bedtime and time to go to sleep, you can choose to cry or not cry but either way it is time for you to go to sleep”.
- Make Sure He Understands There are Rules
As I mentioned above, this is the most important part. Rules actually make our children feel safe. They 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 that he understands that there are rules and that you will enforce them. Consistency is also key, as it will allow him to know exactly what is expected. I find that a “Sleep Rules” chart is really helpful at this age. Create a chart which details your expectations of him at bedtime – something like: I will take my bath, put my pj’s on, read a book, and then go to sleep and stay in my bed until morning. Allow him to color or decorate the chart with stickers etc. to make it his own. Explain to him that sleep is very important for him and also for Mommy and Daddy and that as a big boy he needs to sleep on his own. His reward for following the sleep rules is that he will feel great! Remind him that sleep makes him feel wonderful and it allows us to have the energy to do lots of fun things during the day.
In regards to naptime, as kids near three, parents tend to start to let their schedules slide a bit later and they slowly become super overtired. Over tiredness really fuels this behavior. Make sure that he is going down for his nap as close to 1pm as possible (which I am sure he still needs – 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 him waking from his last nap as possible. If you think that 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. Click here more for preschoolers and their nap and rest time needs.
Copyright © Well Rested Baby, 2015
Amy Lage is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a Family Sleep Institute certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant. She is founder of Well Rested Baby. She offers a host of services including in person, phone, email and Skype/FaceTime consultations that can be tailored to meet any family’s needs and schedule. Please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a consultation. Be sure to follow WRB on Facebook and Twitter too for more great sleep tips.