Parents: Your Three Year-Old can’t Sleep for a Reason!

When our nine year-old Mr Hare was  the grand old age of three, and dropping his last daytime nap, he often couldn’t sleep at night. It used to do my head in. I remember getting extremely anxious for myself (surely ‘good’ parents had their small children asleep early); I became extremely cross with him (why wouldn’t he just go to sleep when he was clearly tired); and fed-up with Craig (just because).

I am still a strong supporter of children getting lotsof sleep. (The Real amount of Sleep Children NEED. ) And now I don’t get stressed about those sometimes late nights when they’re dropping their final nap. Here’s why…

Sleep is controlled by two major rhythms. The first is circadian rhythm, the one most of us have heard of, and means that well parented children can fall asleep at around the same time each night and will wake at around the same time each morning. In winter they might sleep longer and in summer not quite so long.

But our brains also follow a homeostatic rhythm. That is: our children can only sleep after they have done a certain amount of learning. Often we don’t think of just living as learning, but any organising or problem solving we do during the day (even learning how towers made of blocks work) involves learning or modifying pervious knowledge.

It would be impossible to tell how much our child has learned in any set period of time, so instead we can usually use the clock to indicate s/he is ready for a nap or sleep. A small baby will want to sleep after they have been awake for around an hour and a half. They’ve absorbed whatever information they need to absorb (and can manage) and need to process it. (Sleep being the time we organise and make sense of our waking experiences.) By around nine months of age many babies are down to two naps during the day and can manage to be awake for three hours or so at a time. During those three hours they learn what they need to learn about Mum and Dad, about daily patterns in their house, about the terrain they have to explore.  A two-year old can usually manage five hours or so of awake time before they need to sleep. This still can work with their circadian rhythm – e.g. wake at around 7am sleep from 12pm to 2pm, sleep again at around 7.00pm. (Example!)

When we have a three-year old who is moving into the one sleep in 24 hours pattern the two rhythms don’t always work in sync, which is where the problems occur. The child is definitely tired due to circadian rhythm but they can’t drop off due to homeostatic rhythm. If we put them to bed alone, they have separation tantrums and do anything to get us to reconnect with them. They will destroy their rooms if they are left alone and often are found in the hallway or on the bedroom floor asleep after making a lot of noise – if parents choose to ignore them. Rewards and punishment won’t have any long-term effect. If we choose to lie down with our children while they drop off to sleep, they will bounce, sing, play and generally drive us insane with their antics. This is what I experienced with our lovely Mr Hare – and it didn’t help our relationship at all.

With knowledge comes the ability to adapt our parenting!

The answer is to modify our approach for the period (often around a year) they are dropping their final nap. As an example:

1. Child wakes at 6.30am, on the days s/he doesn’t need a nap, s/he easily goes to sleep at 6.30pm at night. This is a great normal pattern for a child younger than six.

2. Child wakes at 6.30am, sleeps at 3pm and wakes at 4pm. They appear tired at 6.30pm (circadian rhythm) but can’t sleep because of homeostatic rhythm. So THAT night only they stay up until 9pm or 9.30pm. The next day they sleep from 2pm until 3pm (because of the late night) and go to bed at 8pm or 8.30pm, the third day they will manage (with a bit of grumpiness) to stay awake and will be asleep at 6.30pm again. They can then continue with the 6.30pm normal sleep time until they have another late nap, then just repeat.

Yes, it is a pain if we want this time for adult time or head-space, but if we take this approach for this short period of time, it means a lot less short-term stress and long-term separation issues.

(I do know parents who say their children can sleep when they’ve had a late nap. None of those children have lived at our house and I believe there are far more who cannot. )

Hope this idea takes some stress out of parenting your three year-olds!

For more innovative ideas about dealing with tantrums buy my book,

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About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have written the books I wish I'd had to read BEFORE I had children ('All About Tantrums - Why we have them How to prevent them What to do when they happen' and 'Why People Drive You Crazy - Pt 1 A Fresh Look at Temperament') I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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31 Responses to Parents: Your Three Year-Old can’t Sleep for a Reason!

  1. hakea says:

    Hi Karyn

    Good to see your return. Yay for Spring!

    Who were the scientists behind this research?

  2. Sara says:

    This is exactly the situation we are having with our three year old and the solution we finally figured out after much trial and error and wailing and gnashing of teeth (mostly on my part). Nice to have an explanation of what’s going on – thanks!

    • Pleased it made sense, Sara. Yes, my teeth too wore down the year our first son was dropping his final nap – so much easier to handle things when we know!!! Thanks for your comment. :)

  3. Kelly says:

    We came to this organically with our child. It just seemed he needed a nap about every three days. Nice to feel like we are doing something right with our boy, who rarely sleeps well at night (still!), but is a true delight.

  4. JasmineCelina says:

    My son is 3 & a half. He wakes up by 9am DOESNT NAP allday, but will NOT sleep until 2-3am. Hes up as we speak & it is 2:07am.. If he wakes up at 8 he can be asleep by 8, BUT he will wake again about 2hrs later & therefore another night fighting sleep until 4am.. Im going nuts not getting any sleep because i wake and sleep with him to be supervised of course. Im out of ideas & none of these help advices are helping.. Wondering since this seems to be my best choice, how could i tweak your advice to help?…

    • Thanks for your question…it’s hard to give accurate advice without knowing you personally.

      I would look at things like: diet (cut the sodas/juices/sugar/additives/maybe even wheat); remove all electronic entertainment for at least two hours before bedtime; seperation anxiety from that day or other issues which might be upsetting him; regular pattern of things that you do before bed might help.

      9am is very late to be rising IMHO. I would even try waking him early…riding the hideousness for around a week or so….and getting him to bed 12 hours after he has woken…no daytime nap.

      Hope there is something useful here for you!

  5. ericaszurlo says:

    Thank you for bringing back some sane honest and approachable reasoning to why my 3 year old will not go to sleep at night. For the past couple months, while I progressively get larger and larger with our second child, my daughter fights taking her naps (which normally don’t occur until 2 with waking around 3:30/4 – too late I agree). We start our bed routine at 7:30 but she tantrums and fights and too often wins. This fight (like tonight) eventually ends with her sleeping in our bed next to me fuming with frustration, sleep not happening until 10:30/11. This can’t go on. I’ve tried getting her to nap earlier but maybe she’s just done with naps, maybe her daily dose of learning is being interrupted by these struggled naps. I am going to try “skipping” naps and though she may fall asleep earlier and thus wake earlier…the struggles may end. Again thank you.

    • You’re so very welcome. Our third child is now 3.75 yo and is finally coming out of this stage. It was such a relief for us to know why the kids couldn’t/wouldn’t sleep when they ‘should’…always happy to pass that information on to other parents. And all the best for the arrival of the new baby!

  6. Malou says:

    I have my son almost 4 years old he couldn’t sleep when he got nap during the day, before I don’t let him take a nap so that at night he will get tired and sleep his routine time. But me and my husband always fight because he want him to have a nap and now they’re always fighting and arguing,my son running,throwing toys in living room,playing, it’s driving us a nuts he won’t sleep till 10 pm our routine before was 8pm he was usually sleep in the routine.

  7. Ruth says:

    So what did you do with your Mr Hare when he was awake at 10 o’clock at night? Did you let him play by himself, play with him, watch tv? Thanks for the article.

    • Mr Hare got the panicked-Mummy version of me…I was so worried about him not sleeping and at that stage I didn’t know why.

      We were more flexible witth the other two boys and with a late night they played, snuggled and sometimes watched the tele with us. From about 8.30pm – 9pm, even if there had been a late sleep, we would start their bedtime routine of eating a banana and a small drink of milk; teeth; toilet; story and snuggles and then one of us would lie with him in a dark room- they might be a bit jiggly for a while but they were almost always asleep by 9.30pm.

  8. Mamma_Simona says:

    This is brilliant information! I thought I was quite “clued up” but didn’t know about homeostatic rhythms. My son and I had a REALLY difficult start to his life – mainly because I was a young mother determined to do everything “right” and “by the book”. As a result I didn’t trust my instincts at all and everyone suffered. Luckily by the time my daughter was born my son was 3 years old and in good health, so I felt a bit more confident in my ability to raise a child! Without knowing the “science” behind behaviours, my daughter and I had an almost idyllic mother/child bond because I allowed myself to trust my own instincts and just tune in to her needs without worrying so much about the clock. My daughter is 17 years old now and we have a brilliant relationship. She actually seeks ME out to tell me about what is going on in her life and ask me for advice. Given the many “horror stories” most parents have of the relationship with their teens, I feel extremely fortunate. At the same time, I can’t help feeling just a little bit proud that by tuning in to her as a baby, I managed to lay the foundation for the relationship we have now. I also must add that (despite the REALLY bad first 2 years or so of my now 20 year old son’s life) our relationship is also good and he has never caused any trouble at all. I guess I’m trying to say that, as long as you love your kids and are seriously trying to do the best you know how to do, they’ll turn out ok!! :)

    • Oh I agree, Simona! I had a similar story with parenting our boys, except I did follow my instincts for the first six months of Joe’s life and then tried to ‘parent by the book’…it’s been wonderful to see him back to be content in his skin and he and I have a wonderful relationship now. I am actually excited about him becoming a teenager! And, the other two boys have had a better start to life because of what I learned with Joe. Thanks for reading and commenting! :D

  9. TiredMomma says:

    Wow I got really excited when i read your post. It all seemed to make sense why we have been fighting my 3 year old son nightly to go to bed. This has been going on for 4 months. However he dropped his nap pretty early on (when he turned 2). He was easy to put to bed for those 8 months, but then we moved and ever since he’s been a challenge every night. I do not see how we could go back now to giving him naps every 3rd day again since he hasn’t napped in 1.5yrs. He fell asleep in the car the other day, slept from 3-5 and then was wide awake until 11:30pm. I guess we have gone past the modifyed nap transition phase. We also have a 4.5yr old daughter just starting school who shares his room and a 9 month old. Do you have any tips for what we could do now?

    • Hi, and thanks for your comment. I would still try a modified nap approach with the 3.5 yo…on days that he doesn’t nap get him into bed as early as you can – it might take a week to get sorted, but worth the effort? With your daughter sleeping with the 9month old, could you move the 9 month old into your room? All the best of luck!

  10. Neci says:

    I know there hasn’t been a comment on this forum for awhile but hopefully I will get a response that may steer me in the right direction. My daughter will be 4 in March and fights sleep in my opinion just for the hell of it. I left my cheating/verbally abusive husband (her dad) last February and we are in our own place. She fought sleep before and it never changed so it didn’t make a difference. But when we first moved into our own place in October of 2013 she seemed to be doing well. I got rid of her crib and got her twin bed that is more comfortable than my bed lol. She would go to sleep every night with no problem. We get up every day at the same time and do the same thing every day. She goes to day care they have a nap from about 12 – 2. She usually takes the nap but sometimes she fights it really bad. Then I put her in bed around the same time 8-8:30pm. But since the new year she has been fighting sleep once again. I don’t know what to do. I feel like it’s because she spends the weekends with her Dad and he lets her do whatever she wants. She told me herself she eats lots of candy and burgers and fries and junk food basically. She stays up late and watches television and does pretty much whatever. It’s one big party for her over there. So when she comes home to me she doesn’t want to fall in line but of course by Tuesdays she falls in line but it’s like I have to remind her all the time you listen to what mommy says and follow the rules and you do the same at school. It’s so frustrating. I just want help on the sleeping thing. Last night she refused to go to sleep so I told her since she wanted to be grown she could stay up and watch television. So I put her in the living room with her blanket and pillow and turned the television on the blue screen. She thought she was winning until she realized no type of television show or program was playing and of course through a tantrum. So she fell asleep in the middle of the living room floor tangled in her blanket in the midst of a tantrum around 10:30pm. I have been dealing with this ever since she was a new born. The only thing that has been consistent me. I know she has always yearned for her dad and now that we are separated she cries for him every time she gets frustrated, or in trouble or things don’t go her way. He has always been inconsistent and when I try to talk to him about having a schedule when she’s with him he just lies and says he does it but I know he doesn’t because she comes home and tells me everything. Help!!!

    • Oh my! That is an awful situation for you to be in. Sadly, you can’t do anything about what happens at her Dad’s house – unless he’s doing something seriously abusive, and that means you will be constantly faced with reinforcing routines when she comes back to you each time. What you could tackle is the daytime nap. Can you ask the daycare not to let her sleep more than about 20 mins – half an hour? At the moment her homeostatic pattern will be over-riding her circadian one and she will be unable to sleep (no matter how tired she is). You’ll probably find, over the next year or so, that nap will naturally disappear and she will be easier to settle at night anyway. I now have a routine where our boys go to bed at a set time, but I don’t try to get them to sleep. They read or draw in bed until they naturally fall asleep. They need to know that I am close by, so I either do computer work in the hallway or play pop-ins where I go in for a cuddle and kiss after 1 minute, then 2 minutes, then 5 minutes, then 7 minutes etc and they know they have to remain in bed.Sometimes they are later to sleep than I would like but it is a system that is a good compromise for their wishes to stay up late and mine for them to rest. Electronics before bed can delay sleep-onset, so I try to avoid them when I can. Hope this helps! All the very best.

  11. Melinda says:

    I have tried everything with my three year old and he refuses to sleep at night in his bed. It doesn’t matter how many times you put him back in his bed he just won’t stay. I start trying to get him to bed around 9 I know its late but it doesn’t matter what time I start I get the same results, but come 2-3 in the morning he is still up and fighting me every step of the way. I will not ever let him sleep with me never have so I know this has nothing to do with it. It has been going on for almost a year he gets maybe 3-4 hours of sleep and that’s it I took away all naps thinking that was the issue but it makes no difference. I’m at my wits end with this kid and have no idea what to do

    • Oh my! That sounds exhausting. I have two different approaches you could take.
      1. How about playing pop-ins with your son when he goes to bed, and allow him to read or draw in bed until he is ready to sleep? By pop-ins I mean, you give him a cuddle and read him a story in bed before you think he is ready to sleep, listen to him tell you about his day and then say, “I’ll pop back in a minute.” Make sure he has a small glass of water beside him and he’s been to the toilet and had a snack etc. Then you leave him and come back after one minute, then two, then three etc… you might have to keep the pop-ins at very close intervals for the first few weeks and then you could stretch them out: 1 min, 2 mins, 4 mins, 6 mins, etc. By allowing him to do something while he is in bed it might keep him there. Especially when he realises you will come back and give him a kiss and a cuddle. I would also work on making warm non-intrusive eye-contact during these pop-in times and at other times throughout the day.
      2. The other idea might be more difficult for you to consider. But I would suggest you give it some serious thought as to whether or not you could bedshare for the next 4-5 years. This investment in the short-term can give you and your son great long-term benefits. My youngest is 4.5 yo and he is in bed with me and it means I don’t have to get out of bed to pull the covers over him, or reassure him during nightmares etc. I am also quicker to get him to the toilet when he needs to go at night and that has cut my workload and added to my length of sleep each night. I get the feeling this could be a big change for you but might it be worth thinking about?

      Hope one of these is at least workable for you. Good luck.

  12. Kimberly says:

    I have two girls 2 & 3 that share a room together. They get up at 5:45-6:00 every morning. Normally they have a nap after lunch . The 3 year old sleeps from 11:30-1:00 and the 2 year old from 11:30-1:30-2. They both go to sleep at 7. Most of the time the go right down, but sometimes I hear them talking to each other till 8:30. Quite cute. My problem is that the 3 year old gets up at 2am and comes into our bed.
    Sometimes she will sleep, other times like last night she kept disturbing me,prodding me,talking,fidgeting….Ava (3) has never been a sleeper.Sometimes she is up from 3 am on. Lola (2) sleeps like a log…I’m so exhausted,I’m the one who she keeps up,her Daddy sleeps like a log as well. We live remotely in Far North Qld so there is a very slim amount of things for them to do.

    • That does sound tiring! I did go through a stage with our boys where I held them firmly, but as gently as I could, when they were in bed with me, and muttered something like, “It’s night time, time to sleep.” It took a few nights but they did get the hang of it.
      Otherwise, is it worth trying to get Ava to give up her daytime sleep? It might mean a few tough evenings/afternoons? Just ideas.

  13. Kat says:

    Our daughter is just under 3, we have recently moved and she is a pretty bad sleeper. I am at the end of my teather and don’t know what to do. I think she has a nap at nursery (goes x 5 days a week) and won’t go to bed until 9-10pm. Before she was going about 8ish and we would have to stay with her till she went to sleep. Now she won’t sleep without one of us next to her or she will wake and then won’t go back to sleep without one of us next to her (mainly my hubby as he gives in more easy than me!) can any help or give suggestions? I’d love to be able to settle her in her room and leave her to sleep on her own.

    • My oldest has just left the family bedroom at 12, my middle son is still on a mattress on the floor at 9 and my 5 yo is still in the family bed. It’s their sense of safety to have us close…While I really appreciate you asking me the question, I can’t answer this one. Apologies.

  14. Meredith says:

    Thank you for your advice. Number two is what is happens at our house. I feel relieved though wish your post would also give me more “head space”.

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