top of page

My three-year-old takes hours to fall asleep at bedtime. Help. 

Redheaded young girl pulling on her braids

My answer: 

Oh boy, is this a common issue. The question is: what’s taking so long? Is this a procrastination problem? A fear/anxiety problem? An overtired problem? Something physical going on? Here are a couple of possibilities and their workarounds:

BEHAVIOR: Kicking, thrashing, wanting to be out of bed, complains that their legs hurt

Answer? Low ferritin/Restless Legs Syndrome

Sometimes, bedtime shenanigans can actually be a sign of something physical that’s bothering them. If your child is physically restless or complains that their legs hurt, read the linked article on how low ferritin causes Restless Legs symptoms in young children and what it does to sleep.

BEHAVIOR: A million requests (more water, pull up the blanket, another song, a dream ballet…)

Answer? A clear, detailed, set-in-stone bedtime chart.

Make sure YOU are in charge of what happens at bedtime. Create a chart that has everything that can (and can’t) happen. Include behaviors you want to see (e.g., “I stay in my bed all night.” “I’m in charge of my sleep.”) Frontload any requests (e.g., “Last drink of water,” “Last trip to the bathroom.”) If it’s not on the chart, it doesn’t happen. Review the chart ahead of bedtime.

BEHAVIOR: “I’m afraid/There are monsters”

Answer? Under 4? Use "magical" cures. Four and up? Time to reality check.

Bedtime is such a typical moment for all of the fears to rear their heads. It’s also a surefire way to keep parents engaged. Here are a couple of strategies: At three, you can use “magical” cures for monsters (e.g., monster spray, Keep Out signs, etc.). Once a child is four or above, you want to start debunking or reframing the fears. Have them draw a picture of the monster, then make it look silly. Have them remember that Sesame Street muppets are “monsters.”

BEHAVIOR: “I don’t want to be in here alone. Stay with me.”

Answer? Use the Chair Method/Sleep Lady Method to scaffold skills.

It’s okay to give children a little presence while they fall asleep, but we don’t want that to be the only way they can. Be there, but MOVE the chair every few nights so we’re increasing how much separation they can tolerate at bedtime.

BEHAVIOR: Just generally…meltdowns or can’t stop thinking

Answer? Overtired or Runaway Brain

Look at naps and what time you are starting bedtime. An overtired child is going to be overly cranky or wired at bedtime. Make sure your child is getting enough naptime for their age, at the right time to make sure they’re not hitting that dreaded “second wind.”

If, on the other hand, you have a smart, verbal little one whose brain is just bursting with energy and ideas at bedtime, time to have some rituals/practices that help them learn to drive that brain and to slow it down before bedtime. A "Put the Thoughts Away" box where you write down ideas or questions and "put them away for the day" can help. Mindfulness, stretching, breathing, getting into their body and learning to slow everything down and release the day is a skill that will be useful in the long-term. Their active, busy body and brain are not going away any time soon.

bottom of page