The Ultimate Riddle: A 3-year-old and Sleep

Parenting Without Answers

Sunday night

  • 10:07: Turn off my light and go to sleep.
  • 11:22: Wake up to blood-curdling screams from the 3-year-old, who has instantaneously appeared in our room, like a horror film apparition. My heart is racing as I pick him up, walk him to his room, and put him back in his bed. In my well-rehearsed exit strategy, I snuggle close, rub his back, sit up while still rubbing his back, and take my hand of his back. He whimpers and pulls me back. Restart all steps of extracting myself until (precarious) success. I’m back to my bed by 11:30. For once, I fall back asleep in a few minutes.
  • 12:27: I hear the door swing open; no screams, but he’s standing at my bedside. My husband says, “let’s just put the sleeping bag down.” I say, “go see Daddy” and I don’t move from my sleeping position. Husband arranges boy on our floor.
  • 5:20: Fussing, standing on husband’s side of the bed. Husband picks him up and tucks him next to him under the covers.
  • 6:01: Alarm goes off. Husband gets in the shower. Boy’s dirty blonde head is the only part of him visible, as he sleeps peacefully under our big, white comforter. He looks so sweet and little, as he so innocently and single-handedly ruins our sleep every week.

I thought the end of the sleeplessness tunnel was after infancy. I have no idea why I had convinced myself of that lie. It was so exhausting that first year, it just had to get better. And as they get older, they respond better to strategies and interventions, right?


I will never forget a moment in my first year of motherhood when a colleague told me about her 4-year-old being the “worst sleeper.” In my judge-y new mom mind, I thought, “they must not have done all the stuff they should have done when he was a baby.” Then she told me how he was a perfect sleeper until recently. Wait – what? Could that happen?

Sleep runs through this blog and website in my personal confessions of failure, as well as with evidence-based reassurance for parents trying the whole range of strategies, because sleep is more than important, it is pretty much everything.

When I get decent sleep on a normal basis, everything feels different. I can think better. I have more patience. I get more done. Life feels more optimistic. I exercise more. I am a better person.

When I don’t sleep, I drag through the motions of the day just trying to get to the couch on the other side . . . counting down until the kids are in bed and I can sit my body listlessly. Life feels hard. I am either in a fog, or snapping at people. I am a worse person.

I’m telling you – if all parents could sleep, we would totally be killing this parenting thing. We would be so patient, we would have so much more energy for all the draining kid stuff, we wouldn’t yell (as much). The world would spin in harmony.

This boy of ours slept fine as a baby (once his infant reflux was managed). Bedtime was a dream scenario – a few minutes of nursing and singing, set him down in his crib, and done. He would fall asleep on his own – no fuss, no muss. I celebrated that clearly our third child had a well-wired sleep brain, like his oldest sister, and NOT like his middle sister (nightmare first year of sleep).

Looking back, he always had trouble with naps, from the time he started daycare as a 3-month-old. I had many a panicky communication with his teachers about his lack of daytime sleep. It ebbed and flowed, but he actually dropped his nap a year ago, at age 2.5. Which is exactly when all the sleep drama started . . . from bedtime power struggles to nighttime awakenings requiring an hour or more to get him back to sleep.

If you think “oh did you try this?” I can pretty much guarantee we did. Remember we were seasoned parents at this point, surviving two other children’s early sleep years, with very good sleep now in place.

His need to feel safe trumps our need to sleep. I have had to accept this as the answer I didn’t want.

It has been a year of the ultimate parent conundrum, leaving me with the answer that sometimes there is no answer. Or the answer is a moving target. After weeks of progressively worse bedtime behavior (his and ours) leaving us completely demoralized and exhausted, we tried a tiny dose of melatonin, mixed with chamomile. His bedtime finally settled down, but the nighttime awakenings continued.

We had a two-week stretch where I was up with him every night between 1-3 am for at least an hour, and then it would take me at least another hour to fall back asleep. I was up with him because this usual Daddy’s boy insisted on me over Daddy when it was the middle of the night. I wanted to cry every night, and sometimes I did.

Then Christmas came, and we had to rearrange the whole sleeping situation to turn his bedroom into a guest room. We resigned ourselves to the inevitability of a complete sleep regression.

We have never been so wrong. THIS was the answer: Sharing a room with his sisters. We had deduced there was a big role of fear in his sleep disturbances, and it seemed that being with his sisters helped him feel safe. I slept all night for consecutive nights for the first time in weeks. After the holiday hosting was over, his sisters actually requested their brother stay in their room. We redesigned the room to accommodate this request, and we had our sleep back.

That was the answer then. And he still has much better bedtimes than at our worst, but the nighttime awakenings are back. They don’t happen every night, but at least twice a week, and sometimes more. He goes back to sleep better than he used to, but it has become another riddle without a solution. He has bad dreams. He needs our comfort. He needs to feel safe right now. His need to feel safe trumps our need to sleep. I have had to accept this as the answer I didn’t want.

I recently attended a coming of age service recognizing the spiritual growth of 9th graders. I basically listened to all of it in tears, not wanting my own children to be that much farther away from needing me. As much as I wish for a future of sleeping in and leaving kids home alone, I don’t want them to grow up.

When I woke up this morning to that little head poking out of the huge white comforter, sleeping so still and quiet after a rough night, I wished he could stay just like this. Needing us. Feeling safe with us. Even if it is in the middle of the night.