Did you know, about 75% of parents are unhappy with their child’s sleep patterns? I can honestly say that I easily fall into this percentage when it comes to my little 3-year-old.
Whether your 3-year-old was sleeping through the night, or never did, I am here to find out not only why your child may not be sleeping through the night, but how you can get your child to sleep all the way through the night.
Why is my 3-year-old not sleeping through the night?
Before we begin on this journey of trying to get your toddler to sleep through the night, we must first find out why they are not sleeping the way they should be. There could be many reasons as to why your 3-year-old is not sleeping through the night. Maybe your child was sleeping through the night and now they are not. Or maybe they never did. For whichever one is the case, it does not matter either way. What is important is finding out why your 3-year-old is not sleeping through the night at this point in time.
This is a big reason why your child may not be able to fall asleep or sleep through the night. 3-year-olds have a lot of things to be excited about. Things like a new toy they got, or a new friend they made at daycare. Things like being excited about potty training, or a new family member can cause excitement as well. Excitement can keep their mind from settling down into a restful and peaceful REM sleep cycle.
Now, I know what you are thinking. What in the world can my 3-year-old be anxious about? Well, actually, there are many things that can cause anxiety in a 3-year-old. A change in scenery, such as a new house, or a new daycare. Arguing or fighting amongst parents or their siblings, a death in the family (particularly a close family member), illnesses in their life (whether it be them or a family member). Another cause could be bullying by piers at daycare or preschool, or even by siblings or parents can create a higher risk of anxiety in your 3-year-old.
Another factor you need to consider is the curiosity of a toddler at three years old. At this age, your 3-year-old is curious about anything and everything. What does this thing do? What is this thing over here? Maybe I should climb this to see what happens if I fall off. Everything is fascinating and distracting to their young brains. So, the slightest little distraction, or interesting item or happenings in their room is going to prevent a 3-year-old from sleeping through the night.
A strong-willed 3-year-old can be a great thing and an amazing experience. Independence and the strength to be independent is a wonderful quality for your young child to have. But at the end of the day, when it is bedtime, that quality can be a major problem. Your toddler may not ready to go to bed when you say it is bedtime, and they are not, then they are going to want to fight you every step of the way.
According to this article, separation anxiety can not only affect the ability to go to sleep, but the duration and quality of sleep a toddler may get. Separation anxiety is when your 3-year-old is anxious about you leaving them somewhere like daycare, preschool, with a family member, etc. In this case, it would be anxiety about you leaving your child in their room alone to sleep, or about you not being there if they were to wake up in the middle of the night. This can develop over time as they get older, or it could be a sudden development that you and your 3-year-old may be having to deal with. Generally, signs of separation anxiety may include fighting sleep, crying when you walk away, clinging onto you or your clothing, throwing temper tantrums, etc.
If your 3-year-old is not sleeping through the night, but was before, it could be the beginning of a nasty phase they will be going through. Phases your child could go through are the 3-year-old sleep regression or a night terror phase. A sleep regression is basically what happens when your child was sleeping through the night and suddenly stopped and is now fighting sleep or waking up multiple times throughout the night. All of these causes I am listing could cause the sleep regression, and throughout your 3-year-old’s life, I am sure they have had many more.
If your child is starting a night terror phase (which about 25-40% of toddlers experience), it will look similar to nightmares, except your toddler will be asleep during an episode and will not be able to wake themselves up. They could begin screaming through the middle of the night while they are dreaming, their heart could race. Your child could begin to hyperventilate. They could begin sleepwalking, thrashing about, or even become violent. This is just a phase though and a few of these tips on how to get your 3-year-old to sleep through the night will also be able to help if sleep issues are caused by night terrors.
A routine change can be a major issue with 3-year-olds and their daily life. If your child is not sleeping through the night, it could be because of a routine change such as starting preschool or daycare, a new baby messing up their routine, potty training causing a daily routine change, etc. Things like these can easily throw a monkey wrench into your child’s routine and cause them to not sleep through the night.
How do I create a better sleep environment for my 3-year-old to sleep through the night?
Before starting a new method to help your 3-year-old how to sleep through the night, you have to set up an optimal sleep space for your toddler. But how do you even begin to do that? What are a few things you may need to help your 3-year-old sleep through the night?
So, this seems fairly obvious, but your 3-year-old is going to need a bed. But I recommend a comfortable bed. Let your toddler pick out their own sheets so they will be happy with their very own big kid sheets. Your toddler is old enough to have a pillow now. The bigger a kid you make your child feel, the more they are going to work hard to get through the night by themselves. I recommend either this toddler bed, or this twin bed from Amazon.
It is extremely common for a 3-year-old to be afraid of the dark. So, it might be useful to get your toddler a sleep light, or a night light. Show your child around their room with just the sleep light on to prepare them before starting your method of choice we will talk about below. Show your toddler that there is nothing to be afraid of. Maybe try a night light projector that plays is a sound machine and plays music or nature sounds to soothe them at night when you are not there.
Let your 3-year-old pick out their own stuffed animal or plushy to sleep with at night. This will help to soothe them and distract them while you are not there. It will give your child comfort in the middle of the night and help them to fall back to sleep if they wake up in the middle of the night if you are not there. Show your toddler one of these nighttime plushy toys and let them choose one or two.
Make sure you are prepared for your 3-year-old’s put down with a bedtime story. A nice soothing story can help your toddler to relax and maybe even fall asleep while you are reading the right book to them. Try either one of these below to see which one they like.
How do I get my 3-year-old to sleep through the night?
So, now we get to the most important part of the article. The actual how to part of getting your 3-year-old to sleep through the night. There are a couple of ways to get your toddler to sleep through the night. Each one of these methods is different and may or may not work for your child, so give the other a try if one does not work. But these are the two best ways to get your 3-year-old to sleep all the way through the night. Whichever method you choose, the solution is to reduce the amount of involvement you have in getting your toddler to sleep on their own through the night.
Both of these methods are called sleep training. What is sleep training you may ask? Well, you have been doing it with your child since the day they were born. This method includes things like schedules and addressing the reason your 3-year-old is not sleeping through the night. Sleep training is a natural way to teach your toddler how to sleep through the night.
Break time method.
This is called the break time method and it is pretty effective and much less direct than the following method. It is efficient and you should try this method before you decide to try the second method.
- Practice, practice, practice: Start by practicing bedtime for a few nights. Dinner, bath, brush teeth, bedtime story. Starting and sticking with that routine and praising them as they do it is a great way to get them to understand that sleeping in their bed through the night is the way to go. Make it fun and silly to help get them to enjoy it. Use a stuffed animal and make the toy talk funny to get your child’s attention. Give this about a week of doing it before actually leaving your 3-year-old alone to fall asleep, or before actually expecting them to sleep through the night.
- Break time: So, say your 3-year-old wakes up in the middle of the night and you are not there. They may panic, and that may be the reason why your toddler is not sleeping through the night. The fear of you not being there. Taking a break is a good way of teaching them that even though you may not be there at the moment, you will come back, and you are right outside of their room. After practicing your new routine, start taking a break during the time it takes your 3-year-old to fall asleep. If your toddler falls asleep by about 30 mins after tuck in time, then take a break at about the 15-minute mark. Tell your child that you have something to do and tell them “break time, I’ll be back in one minute.” Now, you walk out of the room. They may fuss a little. But wait a minute and walk back in and continue on with your routine while you wait for them to fall asleep. Now, practice this every night, adding a bit of time during your break time, until your child is falling asleep on their own. This teaches them that during the middle of the night, it is okay to fall back asleep if they wake up and you are not there. Make sure to add positive reinforcement and interaction when needed to encourage them. Tell your child what a great job they are doing when they stay in their bed quietly to wait for you.
- Encouragement: There will come a night when your child finally falls asleep on their own and sleeps through the night. You will be so proud of them. Make sure you let your child know how proud you are of them. Encourage your 3-year-old to continue to do such a great job. When your child wakes up in the morning, use a special breakfast to reward them on the nights they sleep all the way through the night. Try pancakes in the shape of Mickey Mouse, or your child’s favorite cartoon, as a reward.
Cry it out.
Now, not many people are fond of this method. But, with that said, this method is still effective. This is a more direct method of sleep training, and I would recommend it for a backup plan in case the “Break Time” method does not work. This method is not for the faint of heart, but sometimes this method can be a necessary process. You should prepare yourself for some resistance if you choose to use this method, as well.
- Break time method: Start by trying the break time method. Give it about two weeks to get it to stick, it will not be a short, over and done with process. But if you find your 3-year-old is still resisting bedtime, move onto the next step.
- Close the door: After you have tried the break time method and it is not working, go ahead and walk out anyway. Your 3-year-old is going to fight this, possibly scream. Walk away anyway. After about 3 minutes, you can go ahead and peek back in the door. Remind your toddler that you love them, comfort your child for a moment, then walk out again.
- Repeat: Keep repeating step one, only tack on a couple of minutes each time, allowing your 3-year-old to cry, even if you do not want to. Walk back in again, and remind them, again, that you love them very much and you are proud of how well they are doing. Next, after 5 minutes, push to 10 minutes, then tack on another 5. Keep adding on time until they have finally fallen asleep. Remember to keep assuring your 3-year-old that you love them and encouraging them.
- Repeat again: If your child wakes in the middle of the night and starts crying, you begin this process all over again, repeating the process until your 3-year-old falls back asleep. Remember, again, to reassure your child and comfort them, but enough to make them think that you will be staying with them in their room. If your toddler starts vomiting because they are crying too much, walk in but do not say too much. Check on your child, clean up the mess, and remind them it is okay and that you love them. Then walk away again. I know this can be very harsh, but it is a last resort method.
Getting your 3-year-old to sleep through the night can be difficult to do. But maybe trying one of these methods will help you succeed. It may not be a fast solution but working with your toddler can really help both you and them get the sleep needed to be better in life. Try this Ontel Star Belly Dream Lites, Stuffed Animal Night Light, Cuddly Blue Puppy to help soothe your 3-year-old to sleep. It is both a music player and a stuffed animal. I wish you the best of luck on your sleep training journey.
 Mindell, Jodi A. Sleeping Through the Night, Revised Edition: How Infants, Toddlers, and Parents can get a Good Night’s sleep. Zondervan, 2010.
 Eiden, Rina D., et al. “Parent alcohol problems and peer bullying and victimization: Child gender and toddler attachment security as moderators.” Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology 39.3 (2010): 341-350.
 Bathory, Eleanor, and Suzy Tomopoulos. “Sleep regulation, physiology and development, sleep duration and patterns, and sleep hygiene in infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children.” Current problems in pediatric and adolescent health care 47.2 (2017): 29-42.
 Meltzer, Lisa J., and Valerie McLaughlin Crabtree. Pediatric sleep problems: A clinician’s guide to behavioral interventions. American Psychological Association, 2015.