3 Year Old Sleep Schedules: Combatting Those Crazy Nights

‘Twas a work night before a workday and all through the house, your toddler was running… chasing their toy mouse. The TV was off, and all screens out of sight, in the hopes of establishing those fabled bedtime routines…

This may sound like a poem you’ve heard before. Just know, you’re not alone. Toddler sleep schedules are notoriously difficult to manage, and like most thorny issues, everyone on the internet seems to have an opinion.

That’s why we’ve scoured the best of the blogosphere to bring you this comprehensive guide to toddler sleep schedules.

We know that your free time is precious, so here’s a quick look at what lies ahead. By the end of this article, you will learn:

  1. How much sleep is recommended by healthcare professionals for toddlers (age 3 – 5)
  2. What the most common sleep issues for toddlers are
  3. How to mitigate bedtime battles
  4. Why a certain amount of digging may help to identify the root cause of the fuss

How Much Sleep Should My Toddler Be Getting?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, a child between the ages of 1 and three needs between 12 to 14 hours of sleep over 24 hours.

Children age 3 to 5 require a similar number of hours (11 to 13 hours, per 24-hour period).

For many toddlers, a nap during the day supplements the nightly hours of sleep.

While napping remains beneficial throughout these years, the number of naps per day and nap duration tends to taper off between the ages of 3 and 5. To offset this, Cleveland Clinic recommends setting aside relaxation time, or quiet time.

Even if the child is unable to sleep, the downtime and fixed routine will still have benefits for your child’s health. It is recommended to set aside one hour per day in the early afternoon.

Expert Tip: Don’t forget to schedule your own relaxation time! Whether this is at the spa, doing yoga in the living room, or reading a book or magazine quietly in your bedroom, having time to yourself is just as important.

The Classic Complaints: General Fussing and Procrastination

Toddlers are uniquely capable of creating epic levels of fuss. Entire novels have been written to help parents cope with fussy children.

For our purposes, we will focus on the fuss surrounding bedtime.

  1. Sometimes it’s all about the power of “no.” As you’re undoubtedly aware, toddlers are constantly testing their newfound independence, often with this favorite word.
  2. Procrastination may also be the name of the game. Perhaps your child prefers to don a cape and masquerade about as, “The Excuse-inator,” able to create implausible excuses for delaying bedtime in a single bound of toddler-logic.
  3. More often than not, these forms of resistance before bedtime are related to an underlying reason that is either physical or emotional.

What’s the Fuss, Gus?

Identifying the underlying cause of your child’s resistance can feel like an epic journey in which you are the primary detective, seeking clues under every toddler-sized shoe. You can start by taking note of when the fussing begins.

For instance, does your toddler start saying “no” after you turn off the TV? If so, you may be able to counter their desire for entertainment with a bedtime story which then becomes part of the nightly routine.

  1. Try beginning the story with excitement to hold their attention. However, most sources recommend a story told in soothing voices and without too much energy (or anything scary that could provoke a nightmare) is helpful.
  2. Bedtime stories also seem to have more success when repetitive or rhythmic (think: One fish, two fish, redfish, bluefish).
  3. Most sources also discourage an exciting playtime before bed as this can delay sleep. One example of effective “winding-down” playtime might involve putting stuffed animals or dolls to bed along with your toddler.

Perhaps the “Excuse-inator!” only seems to come out when it’s time to brush their teeth. This may indicate that the child is in some physical discomfort due to teething or a loose tooth.

Wanting More Time with Mom or Dad

Fussing may also be a procrastination tactic when a child wants to spend more time with you. Of course, you can’t always help how much time you have in the day to spend with your little one.

Recommendations to soothe attachment anxieties include:

  1. Setting aside more one-on-one time earlier in the day (if possible)
  2. Creating a routine of bedtime stories, back-scratching games, or lullabies every night before bed.Even if you miss one night, the child will have some security knowing that they can look forward to this scheduled time with you on a different night.
  3. Consider purchasing an audio recording of favorite stories, rhymes, or songs that can stay in the room with your child long after you’ve gone to sleep.
  4. Comfort objects, such as a blanket or a toy, are also recommended to help with attachment procrastination.

Fussing when you leave the room may also be indicative of some underlying fear or anxiety (darkness, monsters, nightmares).

Disturbed Sleep Cycles

Toddlers often wake up in the middle of the night, just like we all do in our sleep cycle. And problems usually appear when they cannot fall back asleep. One of the more common causes of sleeplessness is being over or under tired.

If the child is too tired, they may have difficulty getting to sleep in the first place. Instead, appearing oddly hyper. If the child is not tired enough, they may fall asleep later than you’d like or wake up in the middle of the night.

Suggestions to combat wakefulness include:

  1. Moderating the child’s nap time during the day (shorten or lengthen based on observations of over/under tired conditions)
  2. Adapting naptime and bedtime based on activity level for the day
  3. Allowing toddlers to wake at their natural time rather than adjusting the time they go to sleep

This last suggestion often throws parents for a loop.

If my child wakes up at 5 am every day, shouldn’t I move bedtime to be later so that they wake up at a better time? Most resources will advise against such a plan. Toddlers tend to wake up at their natural time, and if you’ve moved back bedtime, this can result in fewer hours of quality sleep overall.

Overview of the Common Causes

It can be challenging to establish the exact cause of your child’s sleep issues, and there are often multiple forces at play. We’ve listed out some of the more common reasons below along with questions that any aspiring detective should be asking:

Physical- sickness, allergies, teething, over or under tired, growing pains, or sleepwalking

Questions you may ask yourself: Is my child exhibiting signs of illness? Did my child have a regular or extended playtime today? Did my child have a regular or extended quiet/nap time today? Is my child snoring loudly?

Tip: If sleep issues persist, it may be advisable to seek the opinion of your trusted healthcare provider. Medication is usually the last resort, but doctors may also be able to spot something in the child’s underlying health based off of their history.

Emotional- fear, stress, anxiety, quality time

Questions you may ask yourself: Is my child scared of anything real or imagined in the room? Is my child stressed about missing out on fun activities that may go on after they are asleep? If so, can I make the house quieter before bedtime? Is my child stressed by a change in bed (crib – big bed)? Is my child trying to spend more time with me at bedtime?

Remember that you’re not alone in facing these bedtime battles – most toddlers will experience sleep disruptions during these early years of life.

With some patience and the proper detective tools, you can learn to root out fuss-monsters from your daily routine and put those bedtime battles to rest.