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How My 3-Year-Old’s Sleep Fell Apart

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that after I finished my book, I needed a sort of parenting reset with Cee. One of the big areas that we needed to work on was sleep. Bedtime had become a battle, and it was taking Cee a long time to fall asleep. This was leaving us all frustrated at the end of the day, and Cee was waking up grumpy in the mornings. I didn’t have the energy and attention to work on it while I was trying to finish my book, although in hindsight I’m not sure why we waited this long. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve made some big changes to get us back to happy bedtimes.

Let me back up and tell you how we got into trouble with sleep in the first place. Last August, we moved to a new house. By this time, Cee had been in a toddler bed for almost a year, but she had no problem staying in it at bedtime or through the night. We had a sweet bedtime routine that ended with kisses goodnight, turning off the light, and then good sleep for Cee. After we moved, Cee started talking about being afraid of things like the deer and turkeys that wandered through the yard of our new house. We talked about these fears, got her a night light, and spent a little more time with her before saying goodnight, singing a couple of rounds of Twinkle, Twinkle and rubbing her back for a few minutes. All of that was fine.

Then Cee started getting out of her bed after we left her room for the night. She’d pad into the living room or my office to find me. I’d walk her back to bed and tuck her in again, but some nights this happened over and over. I would be shocked to see her in my office door at 9:00 or 9:30 PM, long after her 8:00 bedtime. She was also waking up during the night, coming into our room, and patting my shoulder until I woke up. I would walk her back to her room, often lying down next to her until she went back to sleep. Alternatively, I’d pull her into bed with me, but neither of us slept very well this way. All of this was adding up to fewer hours and less restful sleep for both of us.

When did the sweetness of a good nap become something to resist?

When did the sweetness of a good nap become something to resist?

Things seemed to get worse around the holidays. Cee was getting out of bed more and more after bedtime, and she was having a hard time separating when we tucked her back in. She started asking us to sit with her while she fell asleep, and this actually seemed like a reasonable solution. At least if we sat in her room we could make sure that she stayed in her bed, and maybe she would fall asleep easier and get more rest this way. I reminded myself that she was just 3, and if she was asking for more support in her transition to sleep, why shouldn’t we give that to her? (Never mind that she had been falling asleep on her own since she was a baby.)

There was something else going on at this time, too. I thought that maybe Cee’s struggles with sleep were because I wasn’t there enough for her in the day. I was going through a really tough period, approaching the 1-year anniversary of our first miscarriage and beginning some fertility testing. I desperately wanted another baby, and the despair I felt that this might not ever happen cast a shadow over everything else. Meanwhile, I was afraid that I was failing the child that I already had. Cee was entering a more challenging stage where she was alternatively asserting more independence and being more clingy, but I felt so worn thin that I worried I couldn’t respond in the way that she needed me to. Maybe, I thought, what she needed was more physical closeness, which might give her more security and result in fewer struggles at bedtime.

And so, Husband and I started taking turns sitting in a chair in Cee’s room while she fell asleep at night and at nap time. At first, this seemed to work pretty well. I would usually read on my phone under a blanket while she fell asleep, and I didn’t mind this excuse to catch up on the happenings around the Internet. Cee still took a long time to fall asleep, but at least she wasn’t up and down out of her bed.

On their own, I don’t know if any of these changes were really problematic or what I might do differently. Lots of parents stay with their kids while they fall asleep. The problem, in our case, was this: Sitting with Cee at bedtime didn’t help her get more sleep, and it didn’t help our relationship. In fact, as time went on, I think both of these things got worse. Sometimes we’d have to sit in her chair for over an hour before she fell asleep. Worse, she used our presence as a way to delay sleep, trying her best to engage us in conversation, insisting that she needed another trip to the bathroom, that she was too hot or too cold, that she needed chap stick, a band-aid for yesterday’s scrape, or some nasal saline for her nose that was suddenly too stuffed up to sleep. Then, when I started saying no to these things, she would need a tissue to wipe away her tears of disappointment, plus a new pillowcase because this one was all wet, and then some help calming down. I felt like she was constantly pushing up against my boundaries, testing, testing, testing, until she fell asleep in exhaustion. Bedtime was no longer a relaxing preparation for sleep; it was a nightly power struggle that often ended with a frustrated mama snapping at an exhausted but determined Cee.

It was clear to me that we’d ended up in trouble with sleep in our house. My good intention of trying to be more supportive of Cee at bedtime had actually ended up undermining her confidence in her ability to fall asleep on her own, my confidence in my ability to set healthy boundaries that would support her in good sleep, and her confidence in me to be the gentle leader that she needed.

Around this time, I interviewed Dr. Douglas Teti of Penn State for my book. Dr. Teti is a developmental psychologist currently leading a large NIH-funded study of infant sleep and how it relates to child development, parenting, and family dynamics. It’s fascinating work, and I can’t wait to learn more about this study as the results are published. One of the things that Teti and his research team study is maternal emotional availability at bedtime. They collect video recordings of bedtime interactions between moms and babies, and they score them for the following components of emotional availability (definitions from this paper):

  1. Sensitivity – Parent’s ability to accurately and respond contingently to child signals with warmth and emotional connectedness.
  2. Structuring – Parent’s capacity for appropriate scaffolding of child activities and setting appropriate limits.
  3. Nonintrusiveness – Parent’s capacity to respect the child’s autonomy and personal space.
  4. Nonhostility – Parent’s ability to interact with the child without signs of covert or overt irritability or anger.

Teti’s research has shown that when parents have more emotional availability at bedtime, their babies sleep better, and they also show more secure attachment. (The finding about attachment has not yet been published, but Teti’s lab presented it at the 2013 meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, and he discussed it with me during our interview.) Bedtime practices, like where the baby sleeps and how much physical closeness is involved in the bedtime routine, don’t seem to be important to either sleep or attachment. What is important is finding sleep arrangements and routines that allow you to be an emotionally available parent at bedtime, so that your child feels safe and secure as she drifts off to sleep.

Teti’s research is about babies, and Cee is now 3. However, after talking with Teti, I found myself reflecting on my own emotional availability at bedtime. It was suffering. I had thought that staying with Cee at bedtime – being more physically available to her – would help her feel more secure and improve her sleep. Instead, my physical closeness was simply opening up opportunities for conflict and interfering with Cee’s ability to wind down to sleep on her own, which she’d previously been very good at doing. Meanwhile, it was wearing down my emotional availability, which meant that sometimes my last interaction of the day with Cee was one of “overt irritability and anger.” I knew this didn’t feel good to me, and it surely didn’t feel good to Cee. In fact, I think our bedtime struggles were compromising the quality of our relationship both day and night, bringing out the worst in both of us.

My husband and I agreed that we needed to make a change. Most importantly, Cee needed to start going to sleep on her own again. The next step was getting Cee on board with, or at least prepared for, that change. I’ll leave that story for tomorrow’s post.

It’s been humbling to find that we could fall out of good sleep habits so easily, but I’ve learned a lot about learned a lot about myself as a parent and about Cee by sorting through this problem and trying to find a solution. Have you run into surprising sleep challenges as your child grows?

33 Comments
  1. Jonathan R #

    Your thoughtful post does not make clear what is wrong with young people falling asleep in exhaustion, or in anger. What evidence do you have that “our bedtime struggles were compromising the quality of our relationship both day and night, bringing out the worst in both of us”?

    It is also unclear why you are holding yourself to a zero-irritability standard, given your self-reported “tough period.” We are all human beings first, children second, and parents third, and if we’re not emotionally available, as human beings sometimes are not, then we have to let our children know, just like we let our spouses know.

    Like

    July 28, 2014
    • I don’t think it’s ideal for anyone to fall asleep in anger or in complete exhaustion. Sure, it happens sometimes, but my hope is for Cee to be able to wind her mind and body down and to see bedtime as a wonderful, relaxing time of day – a time to reconnect and then to say goodnight and let go without a struggle. As for evidence that this struggle was hurting our relationship – that’s just the kind of thing that you feel as a parent. It doesn’t feel good, and you try to figure out how to find a better routine.

      I didn’t at all mean to imply that I hold myself to a zero-irritability standard. Goodness no. I don’t know who can pull that off with a 3-year-old. What we can try to do is recognize the situations that lead to irritability and do what we can to rework them.

      Like

      July 28, 2014
  2. Tije #

    I look forward to your next post.
    We arenot struggling with bedtime but with sleeping trough the night with our 2 year old.
    For bedtime our solution is to inform her that we will come back in 5 minutes

    Like

    July 28, 2014
  3. My youngest has had respiratory problems since he was born and because of that would sleep in our room. I’m a light sleeper so I felt better being able to here him breath. Well, 9 years later he falls asleep in his bed but will sleep walk into our room in the middle of the night.

    Like

    July 28, 2014
    • I definitely think that these boundaries are very personal to each family and the individuals involved. For me, the big thing is seeing how changing sleep routines impact Cee’s sleep. If she’s not sleeping well, then that impacts pretty much all parts of her day. She’s always slept better when she fell asleep on her own – from the time she was just a few months old. I think this trial in staying with her as she fell asleep has taught me that that’s still the case.

      I will probably mention this in tomorrow’s post, but I have told her that if she wants to be closer to us during the night, she’s welcome to come sleep on our floor. For a long time, we had her little tent in our room, and she would move there at some point during the night. However, I told her that I wasn’t going to get out of bed to help her with her blankets, etc, and she accepted that arrangement. After a while, the novelty of moving to our room seemed to wear off, and she rarely leaves her bed until morning now.

      Like

      July 28, 2014
  4. Your story sounds so familiar to me. Every little hiccup has resulted in new challenges in getting our son enough sleep. I had read at one point about the emotional availability and have kept that in the forefront of my mind for quite awhile (and I appreciate the reminder!).
    I know now that my feelings of wanting to get my son to sleep so I could “go get something done” made me impatient with his sleep as a young baby and certainly created rough patches in the last 3 years. I’m more cognoscente of my feelings and mood now and try to calm and meditate while we work through the sleep routine. Although I do try to keep some boundaries, I have become more lenient as I’ve found that if I’m relaxed about things and work to prevent tension, the sleep comes much more smoothly.
    Except on occasion, I am now the only one who puts our son to bed (per his insistent request), and much of the time I lay with him until he is asleep. It seems that this is helping him sleep better than he ever has before. It seems to be what he needed. If I do leave the room against his will, I try and make it clear that it is not his “fault.” That is the hardest for me. He feels he has done something wrong and I just want to go work in the garden before it gets dark.

    Like

    July 28, 2014
    • I will freely admit that I’m not good at staying patient for two hours of bedtime routine at the end of the day! I desperately need some alone time at the end of the day, and I’m sure that that desire creates more tension in Cee’s bedroom, not necessarily support for her in falling asleep. I also think that she does better and ultimately appreciates very clear boundaries, and my presence as she fell asleep made the boundaries too fuzzy for her. But each child and parent is different, and I think we each have to work out how to facilitate good sleep and care for ourselves as humans as well.

      Like

      July 28, 2014
  5. Amanda #

    Alice, I’m so glad you’re back. I really enjoy reading your posts. When do you think your book might be available?

    Like

    July 28, 2014
    • Not sure yet – it will be sometime in 2015. We are still early in the review process, so I don’t yet have a publication date.

      Like

      July 28, 2014
  6. Amy #

    That sleep research sounds really interesting, and a great framework to keep in mind at bedtime. For me, the 4 components of emotional availability are not too difficult when putting the baby to bed, but it is a different story with the 3 year old!

    Like

    July 28, 2014
    • Let me quote for you from Teti’s 2010 paper, in which they found that emotional availability was inversely related to baby’s age (this was measured in babies 1-24 months, and they found that moms had less emotional availability with older babies): “We believe that infants 12 months and older were more likely than younger infants to have their own bedtime agenda, which was not always in agreement with those of their mothers.” So YES! Your observation is exactly what is seen in the studies, and I’m sure we can all relate. This emotional availability stuff becomes MUCH harder as our kids get older! For me, I realize that having very clear expectations about bedtime, predictable for both Cee and I, help me to be a better mom at bedtime.

      Like

      July 28, 2014
  7. This hit home for me, my recently turned three year old always went to sleep in his toddler bed in his room by himself and then we moved to a new house and he hasn’t gone to sleep by himself since. Nothing at all has changed in our routine other than he is in a new room in a new house. He complains of being scared of the monsters in his room. We moved from a one story home to a two story home and his bedroom is on the second floor. He won’t even go upstairs by himself because he says that there are monsters upstairs. He sleeps with his six year old sister in her room most nights, which is right across the hall from his room. But on nights when she says she wants to sleep alone, he ends up in our bed. It is frustrating.

    Like

    July 28, 2014
    • Here’s something that may work — Have you tried giving him a flashlight (power over the monsters!) and going with him to check all over his room for monsters before getting into bed? Giving him a choice of playing with it for awhile or just keeping it off, but nearby, will help him gain control over his fears. And playing with it may just keep his mind off those baddie monsters altogether until he falls asleep.

      Like

      July 28, 2014
  8. I think that sometimes we get too caught in up in what should be, not what feels right. I have a 3.6 year old, who was a great sleeper, and recently, she wants me to ‘lay with her until she falls asleep.” I too have thought of all that’s wrong with this, but in the end I do it because I know that all too soon, she will be shutting the door and asking me to leave. In other countries, children sleep in their parents beds for years, and they all turn out okay. Here we hold kids to standards that seem almost impossible. Just because they are three doesn’t mean that they are “grown up,” and don’t need something more. I don’t know, whatever works.

    Like

    July 28, 2014
    • In my case, staying with her while she fell asleep felt right for a while, until I realized that it really wasn’t helping her and was just making me frustrated. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with staying with your child while she falls asleep. I know it works well in many families. The point is that it wasn’t working for us. Why this was is probably a mixture of factors, some cultural, some personal, some biological, some relational – but the important thing for me was to recognize that we needed to find a better way that would work for all the members of our family. I don’t think that is an impossible standard at all.

      Like

      July 28, 2014
      • Sandra R #

        Yes! so many factors influence what feels right for one child and family and what is for another child, even in the same family! we are experimenting this right now with our second daughter… and we chose a different way to do things than with our first daughter. I am finally starting to understand that when it comes to sleep, despite what most people seem to think, there definitly isnt one right or wrong way to do things… just different approaches with different kids in different times and familes! But I will be researching more about emotional availibility, Makes so much sense.

        Like

        July 29, 2014
  9. Alice as always, very insightful. Have you considered the bedtime pass, or temporarily moving your child’s bedtime later e.g. bedtime fading?

    Like

    July 28, 2014
    • The bedtime pass would have been an excellent thing to try when we were struggling with her getting out of bed BEFORE we fell into the habit of sitting in her room. Now I think we are back on track without it, but I’ll keep it in mind. Funnily enough, since we’re not right there with her when she falls asleep, she is much less needy at bedtime and seems to switch herself into going-to-sleep mode much faster. More on that tomorrow.

      Bedtime is still late for a 3-year-old, I think. She usually falls to sleep around 9 PM now. I know that this is related to the mega-nap that she’s taking in the afternoon, plus the summer evening light. Lately she’s been napping from about 2-5 PM. It’s hard to get her down sooner than that because we’re doing swim lessons this summer and get home around 1:30. She needs that nap. She falls asleep easily and really resists waking up if we try to wake her early (as in, she’s grumpy and just wants to be snuggled or held, which makes it hard to do things like make dinner). I think she’s logging enough sleep now – getting about 13 hours total. I think this schedule is working OK for us this summer, but in the fall, we’ll need to work on moving both nap and bedtime earlier.

      Like

      July 28, 2014
      • That definitely makes sense. My older son used to take naps like that. Interesting, he would still go to sleep without difficulty at 8 pm.

        Like

        July 29, 2014
  10. mt #

    With kids, it never ceases to amaze me, how what you think will be a temporary crutch can develop into a full-blown habit completely unintentionally! More than once I’ve thought, “ok HOW did things get like this?!” As far as bedtime goes, my son is 2, and we seem to be in that sweet spot you were in with Cee–he’s in a toddler bed, likes his bedtime routine, goes to sleep on his own promptly just before 8p, then sleeps through the night (unless there are thunderstorms, when he does need some hand-holding).

    I’m curious to read your next post. When I was in high school, I babysat a boy who fiercely resisted bedtime. As I was tucking him in, I could feel the gears in his head turning, plotting the next excuse for coming to get me. It was, as you say, exhausting. I was just reading a cultural history of sleep, and the author mentioned that in our hyper-connected, “always-on”, 24/7 world, the only time some of us are alone with our thoughts is when we’re in the dark, waiting to fall asleep. I’ve always loved that feeling of just letting go and drifting into sleep. I’d like that to be something my son savors, and looks forward to, as well.

    Like

    July 28, 2014
    • I love bedtime too. I love reading in bed to wind down, knowing that there is nothing else I have to do before sleep. I’ve been talking to Cee about how bedtime is one of my favorite times of the day – HER bedtime because it a chance to snuggle with her and talk about our days and MY bedtime because it is my special time to think on my own. I hope I can help her learn to value this time herself.

      Like

      July 28, 2014
  11. Sarah #

    Our 7 month old son was going to sleep and staying asleep in his crib most of the night doe about a month. Then after 1 overnight at grandma’s house, we are off everything. I’ve been trying to make sure we keep the routine and schedule but he’s napping poorly and so tired and waking up often. Just as we thought “yes! Finally a few solid chunks of sleep a night!” (He’d wake once all night) thins changed. I’m hoping with consistency it’ll change back, but I probably need to be more emotionally available too. He gets so clingy during the day.

    Like

    July 28, 2014
    • I’m sorry:( Yes, keep up your old routines, and hopefully he’ll find his groove again soon.

      Like

      July 28, 2014
  12. Can’t wait to read tomorrow’s post! Where do I subscribe!? 🙂

    Like

    July 29, 2014
  13. Elaine #

    I have had many issues with one of my children and sleeping. Same sort of issues, not wanting to go to bed, staying up as late as possible with every excuse, not wanting me to leave the room, etc. I, like you tried allmost everything I could think of then a friend told me to stop nap time. At 3 years old many kids no loger need naps. In the case of my son he was staying up later because he wasnt tired. Stopping naps was not easy and he was a monster by 6 pm but we would force ourselves to get through the hour and put him to bed at 7. As he adjusted it became much easier and now he has no issues with going to bed. He is now 5 and happy and well rested.
    p.s – He still wakes up every night at least once but he usually has a drink of water and goes to the bathroom and goes back to bed. I find nothing wrong with this as I believe some people just wake up in the night – I know I do.

    Like

    July 29, 2014
  14. wondersreviews #

    My 4 years old boy has always truble with sleep since he was born. He can wake up 5-6x in a night, we were sooo tired !!! He never liked to sleep for long. He never want to sleep during the day. He wakes up very early too. When he wake up before 6am, it need to make him to do a sleep around noon. When he’s tired he is unstandable for us who feel already so tired.
    Now it’s better, since he got 4 years old, we stop to force him to go to sleep at noon. We make him to do a lot of activitied to feel tired at the end of the day. So he’s tired at 8-9pm.
    Sometimes he played too much and felt in sleep late in the afternoon. That’s bad, we try to wake him up, if we cannot, we let him sleep 20-45min. And try to wake him up with an ice cream ;). Sometimes because he slept late in the day, he dont want to sleep at bed time. We then let it go and at the end he sleep at 10-11pm.
    My DH make the train with him to he’s bed and i read 1 story, i keep to read only one, then kisses and he sleeps by himself.
    I read a book (very useful) which said : if you stay with your child when he felt in sleep (we did that mistake before), when he wake up in the night, he’ll feel your absence and will feel it strange and may be afraid, etc… So he needs to learn to do it alone. This is also good for him to be independent in the future.
    We are not Done yet. In the middle of the night he walk into our room and falls in our bed. It can happen 1-3x/night. As suggested in the book, we try to bring him back in his room. It’s not always easy. We now always keep him in our bed if it’s close to 6am. As he moves a lot his feets in our bed, we are laking of sleep. But it’s better now than 1year ago !
    Xoxo
    Michelle

    Like

    July 29, 2014
  15. VladimirVictoriaStudios #

    would say our struggle now with our three year old is that she stays up late and wakes up late because we do too. It works for our family but not sure if it’s healthy. She would stay up as late as 11:30pm, but would wake up at 10:30 the next morning. Lately, though, she has been waking up at 4am or so, crying, kicking…sometimes she would be really awake, and sometimes it seemed like she was having a nigtmare. May be staying up late is exhausting her out too much that she couldn’t get full rest at night. She sleeps 12-13 hours a day, including her daytime nap. I am not sure what the solution is.

    Like

    July 31, 2014
    • maggie #

      everything I read says 12 to 13 hours for a three year old is about right. When my daughter was younger, we always had the best luck controlling the rest of her sleep patterns by controlling her wakeup time. We would wake her up at the same time all seven days, plus or minus about 30 minutes. It would only ever takes a few days for any sleep issues to resolve themselves. Which could be the method, or could be the child….

      Like

      August 1, 2014
  16. I’m not too sure why at 3 years old sleeping should be a struggle but now after reading this at least I know I am not alone. My daughter just turn 3 and she also avoiding to go to sleep at her regular time. Since she was born I usually be with her until she fell asleep but it didn’t take longer time she be asleep but now it will take at least two hours before she finally asleep. Even though she be asleep tru the night but it is still very tiring and sometime I will get very frustrated. I even tho will be tired the next day I kindda get used to it but I don’t like to wake her up in the morning and have to see her cry to get ready for pre school. At the moment she only getting 10 hours sleep coz at preschool she refusing a nap as well. She is a happy girl every day and full of energy and she is so very active. Sometimes I feel like I got a hyper active child. But I already check, she is not. She is just one of those child that think she’ll be missing something if she stop for a moment or going to sleep. But yes I do hope for the night time bed will be back to normal again during winter. At this moment I will try to be patient and enjoy each moment of trying to know my 3 years old.

    Like

    February 17, 2015
  17. Marie #

    Thank you so much for this post. I have only read half of it and I already feel so relieved to not be alone, even though this post is from last year. I think this may be the first time I have ever posted a comment on any website, but this resonates with me so much, right down to the stress of secondary infertility and accompanying miscarriages (unfortunately), the same reasoning of trying to be compassionate for my 3 year old son, who used to be easy at bedtime, but starting to feel like he is looking for boundaries rather than comfort, feeling so sad when I get angry at him at night, etc, etc. The list of similar experiences continues. So, thank you so much for sharing your experience. This has provided me some solace.

    Like

    February 18, 2016

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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