Understanding the 3-Year Sleep Regression


Toddlers are a bundle of energy, curiosity, joy, but also strong will and unpredictable experiences.

By the time your child turns 3, you already have the terrible 2s behind you, so you might think that nothing new can come up in the sleep department. Nevertheless, you still need a lot of consistency and commitment to keep the healthy sleep habits your child might have developed so far.

Moreover, any big events your child experiences during the day at this age can very well be projected on their “night screen cinema” and lead to sleep disturbances.

If you’ve found yourself navigating the challenging terrain of the 3-year sleep regression, remember that you’re not alone. In this article, we’ll delve into the complexities of this temporary phase, the main reasons it happens, offering insights and strategies to weather down the storm.

What is a Sleep Regression?

Sleep regression refers to a period when a child who has been sleeping well enough suddenly experiences disruptions in their sleep patterns. While it’s a normal part of development and we should not be afraid of them, the 3-year sleep regression can be particularly unexpected for parents.

Typical Sleep Patterns in Toddlers

Before we explore the specifics of this late sleep regression, let’s establish what’s considered normal for 3-year-old toddler sleep. Older toddlers generally need 11-13 hours of sleep per day, and usually after the 3-year milestone, they do not necessarily need any daytime sleep if the night sleep is restorative enough.

However, understanding toddler baseline behaviour is crucial in identifying when and why a regression occurs.

Around age 3, toddlers undergo significant physical, cognitive and emotional developments. These changes can manifest in disrupted sleep and mood, with regression typically lasting for several weeks.

Main causes of the 3-year sleep regression

  • Physical Milestones – at this age, toddlers may experience newfound physical abilities, such as improved motor skills and coordination. While exciting, these developments can sometimes interfere with settling down for a good night’s sleep or even night-time “practice”.
  • Cognitive Changes – cognitive leaps at this age mean toddlers are processing more information. This mental activity and all the experiences during the day can spill over into the night, causing restlessness and difficulty in falling or staying asleep.
  • Speech Development – this can teach a toddler they can use their words to refuse an early bedtime or even manifest their wish with a tantrum.
  • Emotional Outburst – emotionally, toddlers are learning to navigate a wide range of feelings and fears. This newfound emotional complexity and their wild imagination can contribute to night-time awakenings and sleep disruptions (ex. nightmares or night terrors).
  • Potty Training – many toddlers around this age are about to give up their diapers and this process can be strenuous for everyone involved. As with every big challenge, potty can impact night sleep significantly, including “accidents” during the night. For this reason it is not recommended to overlap potty training with sleep coaching.
  • Screen Time – if this happens too close to bedtime (less than 1,5h) it can send the wrong message to a toddler’s body that it is not yet time to go to bed, by blocking the production of melatonin (sleep hormone).
  • Moving into a Big Bed – although this is the right move for a big toddler, it can be quite challenging and needs proper care and preparation for the transition to be as smooth as possible.
  • Dropping the Nap – At around 3 years of age, it is absolutely normal for toddlers to give up their lunch nap. Most of them don’t need it anymore if their night sleep is consolidated. Nevertheless, giving up daytime sleep completely and suddenly can be demanding, leading to overtiredness at bedtime, struggles before sleep, awake time at night and even early morning wakes.
  • Baby Sibling into the Family – this is not as exciting for a toddler as we might think. Although it’s a happy event for the entire family, toddlers could experience lots of separation anxiety and jealousy around that period, feeling threatened and in fearful competition for their mom’s attention. This can naturally lead to bedtime struggles, multiple wake-ups at night and more tantrums during the day.

Ways to navigate the 3-year sleep regression

As a parent, dealing with a toddler’s sleep regression can be emotionally taxing. Sleep deprivation is a common struggle and finding effective strategies to set healthy boundaries and support both yourself and your toddler at the same time, is paramount.

So, here is what you can do to navigate this phase fast, smart and with confidence:

  • Creating a Sleep-Friendly Environment

Ensuring your toddler’s sleep space is conducive to rest is crucial. However, at this age you don’t have to make your toddler’s sleeping room pitch dark anymore and many times a dim night lamp in the hallway or a slightly opened door can be reassuring for them.

  • Establishing Healthy Boundaries & Consistent Bedtime Routines

Consistent bedtime routines provide toddlers with a sense of security and predictability. Whether it’s a fun bath, a calming massage, reading a favourite book or singing a lullaby, these rituals can signal to your child that it’s time to wind down. Nevertheless, setting healthy boundaries and time limits are vital when it comes to sleep.

  • Nutrition & Sleep

Not surprisingly, a toddler’s diet can impact their sleep. This means offering them good balanced meals throughout the day, early dinner to give them time to digest food before bedtime and avoiding sweet snacks in the late afternoon can contribute to good development and better sleep quality.

  • Limiting Screen Time Before Bed

The stimulating effects of blue light can block the production of melatonin and disrupt a toddler’s ability to fall asleep. Setting clear guidelines on screen time before bedtime can aid in a smoother transition to sleep.

  • Natural light exposure & exercise

Encourage your child to go out into nature and consume their physical energy at least 2 hours every day. This will help them be healthy and sleep better at night.

  • Early bedtime & quiet daytime

Organising an early bedtime is always a good option for toddlers. Besides, replacing the previous lunch nap with some quiet time is a good strategy to avoid disrupted night sleep. Especially during this transition phase.

  • Quality time

Spend as much quality time as possible with your toddler, even if you have a newborn at home. By offering them exclusive 1:1 time, you provide your toddler the connection they need so they are not looking for it and wake up at night.

  • Trust your toddler

Trusting your toddler that they are big children, capable of so many wonderful things can be really empowering for them. This helps them lay a solid foundation of self-esteem and a healthy child-parent relationship.

When to Seek Professional Help

While sleep regression is a normal part of development, certain signs may warrant professional advice. Consulting with the paediatrician or a sleep specialist in case you suspect night terrors or other sleep related disturbances can provide valuable insights and reassurance.

If you need more support with navigating a sleep regression, do not hesitate to book a free discovery call with me. I would be happy to help.

For younger kids, you can check this article for information about the main sleep regressions during the first 2 years of a baby’s life.