Inside: Suffering from endless 3 year old bedtime battles? You’re not alone! Learn practical strategies for taming toddler bedtime tantrums and teach your 3 year old to fall asleep on their own.
Dealing with 3 year old bedtime battles?
Mama, you’re not alone. The truth is, this behavior (while unbelievably frustrating) is totally normal.
If every night you dread putting your 3 year old to bed, today I’m going to help turn things around for you.
It goes something like this:
- You tuck them in and say goodnight
- They ask for another song, another story, water, a potty break
- And then they’re tugging on your clothes begging you to stay
- Next it’s escalated to screaming and tantruming
- Your toddler starts following you to the door, refusing to stay in bed
- 30, 40 minutes later you’re still negotiating with them, desperately trying to get them to bed
No matter how different our children may be, they’re all essentially pulling from the same playbook 🙂
Why does my 3 year old fight bedtime?
As a stay-at-home mom I literally spend all day with my kids. They see me from the minute they come downstairs until they close their eyes for bedtime. When my oldest struggled with saying goodnight at bedtime I could never understand why, because she was essentially with me all day!
Something to consider when it comes to toddler bedtime battles: saying goodnight feels pretty “final” – even if you’ve been with them all day! Separation anxiety is very real for toddlers at this age (and don’t worry, I’ll teach you how to manage this!).
I know it’s hard to accept, but this is just a small piece to the puzzle.
At 3 years old, our little ones have a lot going on:
- Dropped or inconsistent nap
- Increased ability / independence
- Improved language skills
- Potty trained / toilet independence
- Big emotions / big feelings
- “Threenager” – sassiness / attitude
- Going from a crib to a toddler bed
That’s a whole lot of stuff going on in one little body. It’s no wonder they put up a fight at bedtime.
Another factor to consider is whether their afternoon nap may be interfering with their nighttime sleep. Which leads us to this next question…
What is an appropriate bedtime for a 3 year old?
If your toddler is restless, lying awake or refusing to go to bed after having taken a big afternoon nap, it may be time to consider transitioning to quiet time, instead of naptime. Ideally, their bedtime should be 4-5 hours after they wake up from their nap.
So for example, if they nap from 1-3 PM, their bedtime should be 7 PM. However, if they still struggle to fall asleep at an appropriate time, it’s time to consider cutting out naptime. I know, it sounds horrible, but the good news is that they’ll likely fall asleep much quicker at bedtime!
You can of course try shortening the length of the nap, but in general, ANY amount of sleep (even 30 minutes) is enough to “take the edge off” but STILL keep them up at bedtime. My advice would be to try cutting out naps for a week and if it doesn’t work and bedtime with your 3 year old is still a nightmare, reintroduce their nap.
I would almost never recommend keeping them up late in the hope that they’ll fall asleep faster or sleep in later. A toddler who can do this would be the exception, rather than the rule. If kept up late, most toddlers become cranky and irritable and thus much harder to put to bed.
- 3 Year Olds have A LOT going on (so bossy)
- Reconsider naptime
- Separation Anxiety
What is a good 3 Year Old Bedtime Routine?
If you don’t already, it’s a great idea to have a bedtime routine, or a standard set of steps your toddler follows every night to get ready for bed. It also helps immensely to use printable routine picture cards, that way you can say “What’s next? Let’s check your chart!” – rather than you being the one to constantly tell them what to do.
Using a routine chart at bedtime can really help encourage cooperation and reduce power struggles. You can grab the routine cards pictured below, here.
Related: My 3 Year Old’s Daily Routine
Here’s a basic bedtime routine to follow with your toddler:
I’ve really pared this down to keep it simple & straightforward, because as we all know, toddlers love a good power struggle right before bedtime 😄
- Bathtime: in the summer I usually do baths after outdoor play and before dinner since the kids are usually dirty/wet. And if you only get baths done some nights, that’s fine, too.
- PJs: keep the selection limited and allow them to choose from two pairs
- Brush teeth: we struggled with buy-in on this one for a while with Penelope – and we tried the Disney Magic Timer app which helped a lot!
- Stories: to avoid the endless pit of reading bedtime stories, make it your routine to include a set number of stories, and allow them to pick one or all of the stories that night – keep them short for younger toddlers. Our number is 3 stories.
- Songs: when both girls were toddlers we also did the same 3 songs every night – as we quickly learned this helped avoid the struggle for endless or different song requests
- Potty: If your toddler is potty training or fully trained, you’ll want to them to go potty as the LAST thing before they get in bed for the night
- Prayers: Many families include bedtime prayers as part of their bedtime routine
- Special Time: Just before bed is a great time to connect with your toddler one-on-one by building blocks, doing a puzzle or another quiet activity together
➡ And the most important thing: do NOT feel guilty about limiting songs or stories at bedtime. The day has to end, they have to go to sleep, and it shouldn’t drag on forever. It’s OK to say “We’ve read our 3 stories for tonight and I’d love to read this book in the morning.”
Alright, now that we’ve considered the factors behind this, and discussed putting a routine in place, let’s move on to the main event.
Please remember that I am not a sleep consultant, pediatrician, or professional in any way. Just a real mom sharing her experiences. Thank you for making this a safe space to share what works for me!
3 Year Old Bedtime Battles (And How to Stop Them)
So you’ve got your routine in place and you’ve been practicing it every night and your 3 year old is still screaming, crying, and carrying on at bedtime.
*bangs head against wall*
There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling like you’re doing everything right, and still not seeing results.
To your relief, you may find that these recommendations make your responsibilities more clear and end up making bedtime less stressful overall.
Let’s get started!
Do Not Negotiate With a 3 Year Old…
You’ve tucked them in and kissed them goodnight, and as you’re heading for the door they start begging you to stay, yelling that they’re “not tired” – or demanding more stories, more songs, etc.
At this point you may be tempted to explain all the things you still have to get done, or the fact that you need to shower and relax, and mommy’s tired, the list goes on.
The truth is, your toddler really doesn’t care (and doesn’t have the capacity to care) about the laundry list of things you have to get done. So explaining these things to them ends up exhausting you and is equivalent to talking to the wall.
Don’t waste your time explaining, negotiating or making idle “threats” – keep it simple and stick to the script.
Here’s how to do it:
- Before they start with the waterworks, have a quick reason why you have to leave the room.
- Say: “You’re doing a great job staying in bed. Mommy has to fix her contact, I’ll be right back.”
- Leave the room swiftly and close the door.
- Don’t explain further or wait for their response.
- Wait outside their door for a short time (2 minutes or so) and then come back in.
- You can say, “See, I came right back! You did a wonderful job staying in bed.”
- Give them a kiss, say goodnight and leave the room quickly (even if they are screaming)
- At this point, if your partner is home, have them go in and try to calm down your toddler in whatever way works best for them (I wouldn’t keep “switching off” parents, but sometimes sending in dad does the trick)
This method is called “Fading” – and it can work, but it takes practice and consistency. Sometimes you may have to leave the room quickly several times in one night. The purpose of this is to help your 3 year old “wean” from your presence at bedtime.
- The goal is that each time you leave the room for a longer period of time, and eventually your toddler will fall asleep while you’re out of the room.
- Saying goodnight feels very final for them. However, saying “I’ll be right back” or “It will just take a minute” – means that mom is coming right back in – and the more you practice this and come back in, the easier bedtime will be.
- It’s also worth noting that it helps if you appear confident and calm as you do this. If you’re angry or using an irritated tone it will only escalate things.
- I do not recommend leaving a toddler for long periods of “crying it out” as this can be very stressful for them (and for you!). Remember that they are not trying to manipulate you, they are truly having a hard time separating from you.
Here are some “quick reasons” to leave the room:
- Mommy has to go potty
- I need to fix my contact
- I just need to check on something
- I need to get a tissue
- Mommy needs to let the dog inside
Naturally, your toddler might say, “Can I come with you?” Try to avoid saying “no” as this is a trigger word for toddlers and just repeat, “I promise I’ll be right back” and leave as quickly as possible.
If they get out of bed and follow you out the door, calmly take their hand and walk them back to bed without saying anything. This also takes practice.
When you’re ready to leave the room for the last time, you can say, “You don’t have to fall asleep right away, but you do have to stay in bed.” If they ask if you can come check on them again, you can respond: “I will come check on you again, as long as you stay in bed.”
As with any type of change in routine, this takes practice.
Things probably won’t change overnight, but as the week goes on (if you stick to the plan), you’ll find that your 3 year old bedtime battles are a thing of the past.
Favorite Bedtime Helpers (For 3 Year Old Bedtime Battles)
Here are two products that have helped us immensely over the years to tame those 3 year old bedtime battles:
This is a color-changing programmable nightlight that you can control from your phone. The Hatch is such a helpful addition to your bedtime routine because you can program different colors to signal certain events.
For example: we kept our girls’ nightlights a soft purple. The color popped on at 6 PM, so as we were getting ready for bed, they could see their “bedtime” color. The nightlight stayed purple all night until 7 AM when it turned green to signal “okay to wake / come out of room.”
This book is full of short breathing exercises perfect for toddlers, preschoolers, and little kids. If your 3 year old gets worked up, wild, or tends to run around crazy at bedtime, this book is the perfect addition to your routine.
The breathing exercises are simple, fun, and short! My girls love the “hot cocoa” one!
Alright, mama. You got this! DM me anytime on Instagram with questions. Always love to hear from you.