3-Year-Old Sleep Regression: Causes And Tips To Manage It

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A 3-year-old’s sleep regression could be due to hyperstimulation of their senses caused by a toddler’s swift learning and development. This rapid development may cause a shift in their sleeping pattern. A toddler who would sleep well would suddenly show a change in sleeping patterns. They would have disturbed sleep and may even be cranky after waking up. These sleep regressions usually last a few weeks (1).

As per the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 20 to 50 percent of children may be affected by sleep disorders, including sleep regressions. Therefore, they are not uncommon, and you may have observed your child go through them since infancy (2).

A child goes through sleep regressions at four months, six months, 12 months, and 18 months. However, you may have successfully established a healthy sleep routine by two years for them. Hence, encountering a sleep regression at three years could seem difficult. Do not worry, as this is temporary. Here’s more on what you can expect during sleep regression during this age.

How Long Does The Three-Year Sleep Regression Last?

Like any other sleep regression, the three-year-old’s sleep regression lasts for a few weeks (3). If the underlying cause of the regression can be identified, the regression might end sooner by addressing the issue. However, in most cases, the cause of regression is not known. A little patience is needed to go through this phase.

What Causes The Three-Year Sleep Regression?

While the causes for three-year-old’s sleep regression are not always known, some factors are believed to lead to it.

1. Developmental milestones

Rapid development may overwhelm the child

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Three-year-olds develop several social, motor, and language skills. All these changes and developments may overwhelm the child, causing temporary disruptions in their sleep pattern. Physical changes and developmental milestones may also be the reasons for sleep regressions.

Three-year-olds learn to climb, run, walk, and cycle. They also begin to experience a wide range of emotions and may exhibit emotional development attributes, such as concern for a crying friend and showing affection. The developed emotional intelligence makes the toddler more prone to becoming upset, leading to sleep regression (4).

2. Fears, phobias, and nightmares

Nightmares may cause sleep regression in 3-year-olds

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Three-year-olds begin to develop a vivid imagination, and the newly developed imagination brings many fears as well. Nightmares are very common in children between the ages of three and six years (5). Although most children outgrow them, this fear might bring sleep regressions.

3. Environmental changes

A changed environment may cause 3-year-old sleep regression

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Many children move to their toddler bed from their crib at around three years of age (6) (7). Many children also begin to go to nursery school or daycare at about three years of age. This is also aage for a new sibling in the home, which is a very common cause of sleep regression in toddlers. These changes in their surroundings might make them seek more attention at home, and they might begin to exhibit signs of sleep regression.

4. Changes to their nap schedule

Some children begin to drop their naps once they are three years old (2). They are very active at this age, and they don’t want to miss any fun by napping. This may make them overtired by the end of the day. If they go to bed very tired, they remain hyperstimulated and won’t be able to get enough sleep.

Tips To Manage Sleep Regression In A Three-Year-Old

The following tips may make it a little easier for parents to go through this phase (6).

  • Establish a bedtime routine. Follow the routine and the timings as much as possible.
  • Keep the bedroom ambiance cool, calm, dark, and comfortable.
Keep the bedroom ambiance cool, calm, and comfortable

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  • Turn off the bright lights 30-60 minutes before bedtime. Bathing or reading them bedtime stories may also help transition them to a calmer state of mind before laying them on the bed.
  • Set a limit to the number of books you will read to them or the number of songs you will sing.
  • Ensure the bedroom is free of any screen time and strictly use it as a place to sleep.
  • All screen time should be ideally stopped two hours before bedtime.
  • Limit snacks and drinks before bed to minimize bathroom breaks at night.
  • Support your child and be gentle while explaining to them the importance of following the bedtime routine.
  • If you feel that the child is unable to sleep due to fear, get a night light to keep the room dimly lit. Talk to them. Try to find out if something is bothering them emotionally.
Try to find out if something is bothering them

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  • If the toddler seems to have separation anxiety, check in on them briefly during nap time and night sleep.
  • If the bedtime sleep struggles are at a peak already, do not keep on discussing it all day as it may increase their bedtime anxiety and make the toddler resist sleep more.

It is common for parents to get tired and get dependent on coping techniques, such as co-sleeping or holding the child while sleeping. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend these for the safety of the child (3). Remember that it is a phase, and the toddler will soon return to the usual sleeping patterns.

When To See A Doctor?

Most sleep regressions pass within three to four weeks without the need for medical intervention. However, you may contact a healthcare provider if your toddler displays any of the following conditions.

  • Snoring, unusual noises, or pauses in breathing while asleep
  • Excess sleepiness during the day
  • Toddler displays changes in behavior during waking hours
  • Frequent sleep disturbances due to nightmares
  • Sleep regression persists for more than four weeks

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Do all children undergo a sleep regression at three years?

No. it is not necessary for all children to undergo sleep regressions at three years. Moreover, it is also possible for this regression to occur a couple of months before or after the three-year mark.

2. How much sleep do three-year-olds need?

Three-year-olds need about 10 to 13 hours of sleep in 24 hours, including daytime naps. However, many three-year-olds begin to drop off the naps. Try and make it a habit for them to take at least one hour of quiet time in the afternoon if they don’t want to sleep. It will help them relax and calm down (6).

Establishing a bedtime routine, keeping the lights dim, and limiting snacks before bedtime can help deal with sleep regression in three-year-olds. However, consult the doctor if you notice signs of behavioral change or sleep regression lasting for more than four weeks. If your three-year-old does not show signs of sleep regression, it is not something to worry about. It might occur a few days before or after they cross the three-month mark. It is important to have patience and support your child to help overcome this phase.

Infographic: What Are The Signs Of Sleep Regression In A Three-Year-Old Child?

Sleep regression can come and go during early childhood. Knowing the signs of sleep regression can help you differentiate between sleep disturbances and other sleep-related conditions requiring medical care. Go through the infographic to learn the signs of sleep regression in three-year-old children.

signs of sleep regression in a three year old child [infographic]
Illustration: MomJunction Design Team

Key Pointers

  • A three-year-old’s sleep regression usually occurs due to developmental milestones, a normal part of growing up.
  • Phobias and changes in the ambient environment are some problems that may lead to sleep regression.
  • Sleep regression and changes in sleep patterns do not last more than four weeks. If they do, consult a doctor.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
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Dr. Ritika Shah

Dr. Ritika Shah is a certified lactation counsellor (CLC) from iNational Health Care Academy, Singapore and a dental surgeon with more than seven years of clinical experience across various cities in India. She did her graduation in Dentistry from KM Shah Dental College. During her clinical practice, pediatric dentistry was her particular area of interest, and she constantly thrived to...
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Dr. Elham Raker

(MD)
Elham Raker is a board-certified pediatrician and parent coach.  Over the span of her 20-year career, she has worked in different clinical settings, including outpatient, urgent care, hospital care, emergency room, and home-based care.  She has two teenage children. Through her experiences as a doctor and as a mother, she has realized that her passion is educating and counseling patients.