Sleep struggles are common in three-year-olds. Learn what you can expect and how to survive your toddler’s temporary sleep regression.
From day one, my daughter was an amazing sleeper. She would nap peacefully in the afternoons and settle down for a full night of uninterrupted sleep in the evenings. She rarely woke in the middle of the night, and when she did, she’d drink her bottle and fall right back to sleep.
Shortly after her third birthday, we switched her from a crib to a toddler bed. That’s when everything changed. While she loved her new bed, she didn’t want to sleep in it. Instead, she used her newfound freedom to roam the house when everyone else was in asleep. Putting her back to sleep was futile as she would get up as soon as I left the room.
Was it just a phase? Most experts think so.
“A sleep regression describes a period of time (anywhere from 1 – 4 weeks) when a baby or toddler who has been sleeping well suddenly starts waking at night, and/or skipping naps (or waking early from naps) for no apparent reason”, says Michael Wenkart, author of A Guide to Sleep for Babies, Children and Adults.
While sleep regression is more common in children younger than three, toddlers too can experience sleep problems due to major life transitions like potty training or from sleep-related issues like nightmares or night terrors.
You can’t always prevent sleep regression in three-year-olds, but you can understand why it happens and how to best manage it.
What the Experts Say
Is your toddler having difficulty sleeping at night? If so, sleep regression may be to blame. While many babies and toddlers go through periods of sleep regression, it can be difficult for many parents to manage, especially when they become sleep deprived themselves. Here’s what some experts have to say about this sleep issue:
“A toddler’s sleep can change over time, and she may have phases of great sleep and phases of disrupted sleep.”
– The Calm and Happy Toddler, Dr. Rebecca Chicot
“Often the regression is caused by a change in circumstances; for example, a new baby, moving house, a change in caregiver or even a death in the family.”
– Save Our Sleep – Toddler, Tizzie Hall
“Some toddlers experience regression during a stressful event (e.g. the birth of a sibling, hospitalization). Stress in a toddler’s life affects his or her ability to master new developmental tasks.”
– Maternity and Pediatric Nursing, Susan Scott Ricca, Terri Kyle
“Lack of sleep can be a major problem for both child and caregivers. Caregivers are strongly encouraged to address sleep issues early, consistently, and appropriately for developmental levels, because sleep habits developed early can last for a lifetime.”
– Primary Care Pediatrics, Carol Green-Hernandez, Joanne K. Singleton, Daniel Z. Aronzon
“When regression does occur, the best approach is to ignore it while praising existing patterns of appropriate behavior. Regression is a child’s way of saying, “I can’t cope with the present stress and perfect this skill as well, but I will if given patience and understanding.”
– Wong’s Essentials of Pediatric Nursing, Marilyn J. Hockenberry, David Wilson, Donna L. Wong
Handling Sleep Regression
While there’s no “cure” for sleep regression, you can help create a safe and comforting environment to minimize your toddler’s sleeplessness. Know that the setback won’t last forever. Sleep regressions typically last between two and six weeks, according to child and family therapist Kim West.
It’s important to set boundaries and limits with your toddler, especially during naps and bedtime. Try to maintain a consistent schedule that your child can adapt to and expect. If what you’re doing to manage your toddler’s regression isn’t working, evaluate your approach. It may be time to introduce limits or tweak your toddler’s routine until you find something that works.
Remember that sleep regression doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something amiss with your child. Three-year-olds can regress for a wide range of reasons or for no reason at all. As your child experiences setbacks, be patient and know that they’ll pass.
Sleep regression can happen to the best of sleepers. Just remember that it’s just a hiccup and your little one will be back to sleeping like a pro soon enough.