Babies, for example, go through numerous nighttime fluctuations when they grow, learn new skills, or drop daytime naps. It’s normal. Common. Sleep regressions are par for the parenting course.
But did you know some children will experience sleep regressions at or around their third year? It’s true. One of the last big regressions is the 3-year-old sleep regression, and it can be a doozy.
Here’s what to expect — and how to deal with it.
Sleep regressions are disturbances in regular sleep behavior. They can affect children at nighttime or naptime and can cause your little one to wake frequently or fight being put down.
They can even affect your toddler’s daytime behavior. A lack of sleep may cause excessive grumpiness, crankiness, or hyperactivity. Outbursts are common.
The good news is sleep regressions are temporary. According to Jodi Willenborg, a certified sleep consultant and the founder of Rest Sleep Rise, many sleep regressions last a few weeks, and the 3-year regression is no exception.
They’re also integral. Dr. Lyndsey Garbi, a full-time pediatrician and the chief pediatrician at Blueberry Pediatrics, tells Healthline they’re “a normal occurrence for children as they grow.”
However, that doesn’t make them any easier.
There’s no set timeline or duration for the 3-year sleep regression. In fact, it’s different for all children
“Sometimes the 3-year sleep regression doesn’t happen. Sometimes it happens multiple times in a year. It all depends on the child, any underlying reasons it’s occurring, and how parents choose to handle it,” Garbi explains.
However, as with most sleep regressions, the 3-year-old sleep regression can last a few days or a few weeks.
It’s normal to wonder what’s causing the sudden change in sleep routine. After all, sleep regressions are exhausting — for you and your child.
While every 3-year-old is unique, there are some general reasons why they might be experiencing this sleep regression.
One of the most common causes of a sleep regression is a physical or developmental change. From learning to walk and talk to running, jumping, laughing, and figuring out the finer points of play, toddlers undergo numerous physical, social, and emotional changes.
And many 3-year-olds are undergoing a major developmental shift. At this age, toddlers may be potty training. “Most 3-year-olds are learning how to potty train, and this new skill or emphasis on the skill might cause more night waking than usual,” Willenborg explains.
“Having to urinate may wake them from sleep, and they have difficulty falling back to sleep.”
Nightmares, fears, and phobias
As children grow, they begin to see the world in new (and more complex) ways, and with this newfound complexity comes fear.
“Fears begin to develop around this age, and these concerns may bleed into bedtime, creating an urge to fight going to sleep and/or sleeping alone,” Willenborg says.
To combat this, respect your child’s fears but also reassure them that they are safe and OK. You can also invest in a night-light or small lamp to make their environment feel more welcoming.
Environmental changes can also affect your child’s sleep schedule. “Most children are moving from their crib to a toddler bed at or around the 3-year mark,” Willenborg says. “And this transition can cause a host of issues, especially if your child is ill-prepared.”
Changes during the day may also affect your toddler’s evening. For example, if your child starts day care at this age, they may lash out or act out to seek comfort at home. Also, the potential introduction of a sibling can affect sleep — yours and theirs.
Changes to their nap schedule
Toddlers often refuse to snooze during the day — because, let’s face it, life is too exciting for sleep — and this can affect your child in the evening.
“Most children drop their naps around 3 years old,” Willenborg says. “If you don’t adjust your child’s bedtime to compensate during the transition, the child will accrue a sleep debt, and this debt, which will make your child overtired, can contribute to night wakings as well as early risings.”
Plus, your 3-year-old may be testing limits to see how far they can push things. After all, at 3, independence is key. To combat this, let your child take the lead when they can but also establish boundaries and be consistent in your tone and messaging. Frequent firmness can go a long way.
The best way to handle any regression is to keep good sleep habits in place.
“Continue to encourage your child to fall asleep independently and stay in their bed,” Willenborg says. “Hold onto your child’s bedtime routine, honor your child’s sleep needs, and talk to your child throughout the day about the family’s need for good rest and expectations regarding sleep.”
If bedtime has already become a struggle, talking about it throughout the day may make a 3-year-old more anxious about bedtime and exacerbate sleep problems. If that’s the case, talking less and being calm, soothing, and matter of fact in the hour or so leading up to bedtime may work better.
Patience is also key. With reinforcement and consistency, this regression should blow over in a few weeks — or less.
While it may seem like your little one could run on no sleep — or just a few hours of it — the truth is toddlers’ developing bodies and minds need a lot of rest. “Three-year-olds need 10 to 13 hours of sleep a day,” Garbi tells Healthline.
Of course, how and when your child will accrue these hours will vary. “Some 3-year-olds drop their naps and are up all day, while others still take naps and sleep less at night. Each child is different. Each family has to figure out what works best for them.”
Sleep regressions can be hard, and a 3-year-old sleep regression is no different. From physical changes to social and emotional developments, toddlers are growing at a rapid rate. This can make for a difficult time — for your wee one and you.
Nevertheless, as with all prior regressions, a 3-year sleep regression is temporary. In the meantime, be patient. Try to remain consistent, and ask for help. You don’t have to do this alone.