We’re in a Sleep Desert with our Three-Year-Old and I’ll Lose My Mind if I Don’t Turn this Around

FluxFactory / Getty Images

FluxFactory / Getty Images

It’s 11:00 at night and my husband and I finally fall into bed, leaning over to kiss each other before drifting off toward sleep. Our one-year-old daughter is finally sleeping through the night, and the quiet lull of her white noise machine wafts out of the monitor, washing over our room with a tangible sense of calm.

Only, unlike how I would have envisioned these moments, back when she was not sleeping longer than an hour at a time and I was up breastfeeding half of the night, we still do not have peace. Despite the long hours and hard work of sleep training her, my husband and I are still not alone — and I’m still not sleeping. Because there’s a three-year-old lying between us that honestly I’d rather not be there.


There are parents out there who enjoy bed-sharing. That’s fine, but I loathe it. We never bed-shared with our infants for safety reasons, but also because I just want our room and bed to ourselves. Our three-year-old was in her own room from the first night home from the hospital. I went in to nurse her several times a night, but luckily, she slept through early.

That meant that my husband and I had our room to ourselves at night. A chance at romance was nice, but even if we were just watching Law & Order: SVU together until one of us passed out, our bed was our space. And then something changed.

Halfway through my pregnancy with Baby #2, our daughter’s sleep patterns shifted. She still took decent afternoon naps, but would stay up late and be cranky. I sought advice from everyone — other parents, sleep consultants, and therapists. One time I spent nearly ten minutes crying on the understanding shoulder of a grandmother (a stranger) in the baby aisle at Target after a benign exchange turned into an impromptu pep-talk on toddler sleep.

We took out the nap but that didn’t help. If anything, she would stay up even later on those nights, acting horrible from dinner until last man standing. (We all know the last man standing was not the pregnant woman).

We cut out juice and other added sugar in her diet, only allowing a little treat on the weekend. Upped her protein and veggies, lowered her carbs. We tried a new brand of multivitamin, got a new pediatrician. And a new white noise machine. And then a third. Taught her yoga, lay in bed meditating with her.

We held onto the crib as long as possible. Spent family cool-down time on the couch instead of in our room. Put essential oils in her bath and rolled them on her wrists. Signed her up for dance class and extra days at preschool to tire her out. Nothing. Freaking. Worked.

By the time our second daughter arrived, my husband and I were so bleary-eyed and desperate for the toddler to sleep — somewhere, somehow — that we gave up and started bed-sharing. Whether in her own room or ours, she’s had a parent with her almost every night for over a year and it’s killing me. If it was just the co-sleeping thing I wouldn’t care as much, but now it’s morphed into an all-out anti-sleeping thing.

Most days there’s no nap at all, but either way she’s up until 11 or later every night. Avoiding screens before bed is definitely a help, but doesn’t eliminate the problem. We’re at our wit’s end and I’m about a day away from crying at her feet and begging for a night’s peace.

It’s good to know I’m not alone, though. Every doctor and sleep consultant we’ve spoken to about the problem agrees with a few main things: toddler sleep regressions are common, and typically begin between ages 18 months and 2. But if you’re extra lucky like we are, they can go on … and on! They’re caused by a variety of factors.

One top reason behind toddler regressions is a need to express individuality. That’s right: the same stubborn streak that’s causing your toddler to refuse broccoli or a jacket is also a likely culprit behind the lack of sleep.

Another factor could be all the change that takes place at this age. Starting preschool, potty-training, in our case welcoming a baby sister — these are all biggies for littles. We also moved out of state recently away from family and friends, definitely causing a setback for our three-year-old. Associated anxiety with these changes definitely contributes, so creating a sense of security for your little one is very useful for sleep and otherwise.

Our research and the expert advice we’ve received all identified a lack of continuity and routine as our main misstep in handling the regression. When I say we’ve “tried everything,” I mean it. But it turns out trying one thing, over and over, is your best bet at tackling these pesky toddler sleep issues.

So, for the last two weeks we’ve been diligent about a new, early bedtime. A set amount of books. A no-talking rule as one of us lies down with her to help her fall asleep. No giving in on the hard no’s like nighttime screens or sweets — even on weekends. Putting her in her own room, and returning her there every single time she comes to ours. Reminding her all the while that we love her and want her to be healthy and happy, and that is why she needs to sleep.

It’s been tough and I wouldn’t say we’re at the finish line yet, but she’s starting to get more comfortable in her own space and used to the concept that her parents are in the driver seat at bedtime now. After a few hellish attempts at the start, we’ve had several solid nights where she’s made it all the way through in her own bed. When she does come to ours, we’re usually able to remove her, limp and exhausted, just a few minutes later.

Last night after dinner we were shocked when she disappeared upstairs, got dressed in her pajamas on her own, and came back down to the kitchen declaring she was ready for bed. Like anything in life, sometimes you have to make people think the change was their idea. I guess it’s starting to work just in time, too. Because that baby down the hall? She’ll be a toddler soon, too!