Sleep Training 3 Year Old Toddlers: Expert Tips For Success

Author Image By Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH •  Updated: 01/18/24 •  Sleep / Sleep Training

Is bedtime a battleground in your home? Does your 3-year-old fight going to sleep and refuse to sleep without you? Do they always get out of bed to find you? Do you find yourself tiptoeing around after they finally fall asleep, praying your toddler will sleep through the night?

As a parent, lack of sleep can leave you drained. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Inside this guide on sleep training 3-year-old toddlers, you’ll discover proven techniques to transform bedtime from stressful to serene.

With step-by-step methods to encourage healthy sleep habits and teach your toddler to soothe themselves to sleep, you’ll all get the full night’s sleep you deserve in no time!

3 Year Old Sleep Training Featured Image

The Importance Of Sleep Training

Sleep training is a way of teaching your child to fall asleep and cope with waking at night and falling back to sleep without your presence.

In other words, it helps your little one to learn to soothe themselves and sleep through the night.

But why exactly is it important?

Firstly, consistent sleep patterns are essential for cognitive and physical growth. At 3 years of age, your child is gaining so many new skills from rapidly developing language, social skills, physical skills, and imagination.

Ensuring your child gets enough rest is a vital part of their growth and wellbeing as their life gets busier and you really want to get a healthy sleep routine in place before they start school, when they will need to be well rested for busy days.

Quality sleep is therefore vital to support this time of rapid development.

Secondly, establishing good sleep habits can prevent long-term sleep issues. It sets a healthy foundation for your child’s future sleep into adulthood. 

Remember, you’re not just teaching sleep; you’re teaching self-soothing skills.

Finally, it’s important for your well-being too. When your toddler sleeps better, so does the parent. With more rest, you’re able to be a more patient and attentive parent. This benefits your whole family’s overall happiness and health.

So how can you sleep train 3-year-old toddlers quickly and effectively?

How To Sleep Train A 3-Year-Old: Preparations

Sleep training an older child is different from sleep training a baby. 

The good news is that you are dealing with a child who can understand instructions and consequences. 

You can use this to your advantage to help your little one understand that they need to follow the rules at bedtime, stay in bed, not get up too early, and learn to self-settle when they wake at night.

Use this to your advantage and ensure you have the following healthy sleep tips in place BEFORE you start a sleep training process.

Not only will you be helping to establish healthy sleep associations and ensure your sleep training efforts are more successful… But you may find you do not need to sleep train at all.

How To Sleep Train A 3-Year-Old Toddler

How Long Does It Take To Sleep Train A 3-Year-Old?

To be honest, sleep training a 3-year-old does not have a set duration. It will depend on the individual child, their personality, and what is going on in their daily life.

But if you want a rough guideline, expect to sleep train 3-year-olds in 3-14 days.

5 Useful Tools For Sleep Training 3-Year-Old Toddlers

Before we start talking about the methods of sleep training a 3-year-old, it is important to emphasize that sleep training a young child can be an ongoing affair. 

At any point, your little one can experience sleep issues that need your help and support to fix and if your toddler is experiencing sleep troubles at 3 years old, please do not beat yourself up about it.

As they head towards the pre-school years, your 3-year-old will need a healthy sleep schedule and suitable sleep support to accompany this important phase of rapid learning.

To help ensure you have the best chance of sleep success, here is a list of items that you should consider using to help with your sleep training efforts.

1. A Toddler Clock

A clock that is designed to indicate to your 3-year-old when they wake up using a color-changing light will give them focus and structure to learn when they should stay in bed and when it is ok to get up.

My Top Pick
MELLA Ready to Rise Children's Sleep Trainer

MELLA is the #1 most backed kid's clock and all-in-one Ready to Rise children's sleep trainer designed to keep your kid in bed longer. MELLA is a sleep trainer, alarm clock, sleep sounds machine, night light and nap timer rolled into one adorable package!

Studies show that children do not fully understand the concept of time until around 8 years old, so MELLA uses colours and facial expressions to teach your kid when it's time for bed and when it's okay to wake up. With MELLA, your kid can learn to stay in bed longer, giving you more sleep!

Buy Now
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

2. Night Light or Ceiling Projector

Fear of the dark and monster under the bed are common at this age so a night light can offer comfort and make your 3-year-old less likely to cry out for you at night and feel more inclined to settle well at bedtime.

A ceiling projector is a nightlight that projects images and patterns onto your toddler’s ceiling. I prefer them for older toddlers as they can provide gentle stimulation, comfort, and a focus point for 3-year-olds as they settle to sleep.

My Top Pick
Toddler Night Light Lamp By LICKLIP

Finding the right night light for your child can be quite a task. You want something safe, comforting, and practical. The Cozy Starry Night Light ticks these boxes, with eye-friendly warm lighting and an easy-to-use dimmer.

Its gentle glow makes it the best night light for feeding baby, diaper changes, or comforting your little one back to sleep.

As your baby grows the Cozy Starry Night Light's starry sky projection can provide comfort and gentle quiet time stimulation. Its soft lighting ensures a dreamy, peaceful environment, supporting your baby’s natural sleep cycle.

It really is a fantastic nightlight (at a very reasonable price!)

Pros:
  • Eye-friendly warm lighting with adjustable brightness.
  • Includes a timer function for convenience.
  • Projects a starry sky that is soothing for little ones.
  • Rechargeable battery, so it's very portable.
Cons:
  • A USB adapter is not included for charging.
  • The star projector is static without motion (however, this is ideal for very young babies and toddlers).
  • Battery life varies based on the brightness settings.
Buy Now
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

3. A Reward Sleep Chart

Creating a sleep chart that records your 3-year-old’s sleep successes is a great motivator. Try and avoid rewarding with new toys or sweet treats and instead promise a special experience, trip out, or playtime with you such as cooking together or doing a craft project.

Luigi's Safari Animal Magnetic Reward Chart for Kids 🌟

Motivate your little ones with this fantastic magnetic reward chart. This colorful and vibrant chart features adorable safari animals and comes with 18 different chore magnets so you can personalize it to your routines. Fully interactive and adaptable, your bedtimes will never stall again!

Buy Now
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

4. Audio Apps

I used audio stories to successfully settle my son from the ages of 3 to 8 years old. I have recommended them to many parents I’ve worked with, all of whom, report great success getting a toddler to sleep listening to an audiobook.

There are plenty of apps and online resources to choose from but if you have Audible, here is one of my favorites to get you started.

5. Bedtime Story Books

Having a chat about your expectations for bedtime with your toddler and how important it is that they and the whole family get a good night’s sleep is a good place to start.

I always find utilizing books as a way to start a conversation with children is a great idea and this is especially helpful if your 3-year-old is struggling to settle at night because of fears of the dark, a monster under the bed, separation anxiety, or a fear of the unknown (such as staring pre-school).

Best Book For Separation Anxiety
Best Fear Of The Dark Book
Best Fear Of The Dark Book For Young Toddlers
4.9
4.6
4.5
Description:

The Invisible String is a heartwarming and comforting book that helps children understand that even when loved ones are far away, they are still connected by an invisible string of love. I love this concept as it's exactly what I taught my son when we moved to the UK from South Africa. With its gentle message of love and connection, this beautifully illustrated book is perfect for children who may be struggling with separation anxiety or missing someone special.

Description:

Join Orion on an imaginative adventure through the world of the dark! In this beautifully illustrated children's book, author Emma Yarlett explores the concept of fear and how we can overcome it. Follow Orion as he learns to face his fears and discovers the magic and wonder that can be found in the dark. With engaging storytelling and stunning illustrations, "Orion and the Dark" is a must-read for children and parents alike.

Description:

Tiny T-Rex and the Very Dark Dark is a delightful and relatable book that helps children overcome their fear of the dark. Through the lovable character of Tiny T-Rex, children will learn that even the bravest of us can feel scared sometimes and that it's okay to ask for help! With its charming illustrations and empowering message, Tiny T-Rex and the Very Dark Dark is a must-read for any toddler who needs a little extra courage at bedtime.

Best Book For Separation Anxiety
4.9
Description:

The Invisible String is a heartwarming and comforting book that helps children understand that even when loved ones are far away, they are still connected by an invisible string of love. I love this concept as it's exactly what I taught my son when we moved to the UK from South Africa. With its gentle message of love and connection, this beautifully illustrated book is perfect for children who may be struggling with separation anxiety or missing someone special.

Best Fear Of The Dark Book
4.6
Description:

Join Orion on an imaginative adventure through the world of the dark! In this beautifully illustrated children's book, author Emma Yarlett explores the concept of fear and how we can overcome it. Follow Orion as he learns to face his fears and discovers the magic and wonder that can be found in the dark. With engaging storytelling and stunning illustrations, "Orion and the Dark" is a must-read for children and parents alike.

Best Fear Of The Dark Book For Young Toddlers
4.5
Description:

Tiny T-Rex and the Very Dark Dark is a delightful and relatable book that helps children overcome their fear of the dark. Through the lovable character of Tiny T-Rex, children will learn that even the bravest of us can feel scared sometimes and that it's okay to ask for help! With its charming illustrations and empowering message, Tiny T-Rex and the Very Dark Dark is a must-read for any toddler who needs a little extra courage at bedtime.

Looking to get your little one to sleep quickly and effortlessly? Check out my Bedtime and Nap Cheat Sheet and master the art of making daytime naps and bedtimes as seamless as possible.

Suitable Sleep Training Methods For A 3-Year-Old

Sleep training a 3-year-old will be different from what you learned when sleep training a baby. There are lots of methods to choose from, however, when choosing a sleep training method you need to pick one that feels right for you and your family. 

Take into account your child’s temperament, the reason for their struggles at bedtime, and how you intend to deal with nighttime waking.

These can all have a big influence on which sleep training method will be successful.

3 Year Old Sleep Training Methods

The Chair Method: 

The Chair Method is one of my preferred sleep training methods for toddlers and one that I have found works particularly well for 3-year-olds. 

At this age, the fading method, the camping out method, and the chair method become the same. 

To implement this method, you gradually reduce your presence in their room. Start by sitting near your little one’s bed on a chair or the floor. 

The aim is that over successive nights you can increase the distance between you and your little one until they feel comfortable falling asleep without your presence.

If needed, you can start by holding their hand, then progress to no touching. Then each night move a little further away. This helps your child learn to fall asleep independently without you touching or lying next to them but still feel your support. 

You can offer verbal comfort if necessary but you should keep it short and sweet and re-emphasize that they need to go to sleep.

The “I’ll Be Back” Method

The I’ll Be Back method is another of my favorite sleep training methods and one that I feel is very appropriate for 3-year-old toddlers.

To make the most of this method, tell your little one that you have to go and do a boring chore and you will be back in a few minutes. 

Make sure the chore is very boring (laundry, emails, and cleaning are all good options), and reassure your toddler that you’ll return in a few moments. 

Ensure that you do return as promised and repeat this process, gradually extend the time you are away doing whatever you have told them that you need to do. 

(PS: you don’t have to go and do emails… it’s simply to stop your toddler from wanting to join in) 

The crucial aspect of this sleep training method is that you return as promised. 

Your return will help build your toddler’s trust in you and over time you can gradually extend the time you are away and eventually they will be falling asleep alone before your first return.

Using Rewards and Positive Reinforcement

As I mentioned in my helpful tools section, reward charts can be very effective in helping a toddler learn to sleep independently. 

This is because at 3 years old, your little one can understand the concept of reward and consequences and will always want to work towards a reward. 

Using a sleep chart to track behavior and give incentives like stickers or an extra bedtime story for staying in bed to see the positive effects of this “sleep training technique”.

The Cry It Out Method

The Cry It Out Method is always my last result for sleep training children as I believe you can have great sleep success without needing to let your little one cry themselves into exhausted sleep.

However…

If all of my sleep tips and previous sleep training techniques have failed, sometimes have no option but to try the cry-it-out method. 

The principle is simple and involves letting your child cry until they fall asleep.

Some experts believe this method can be effective without causing harm over the long term and for the particularly stubborn or persistent 3-year-old, it can work. 

However, you must know that this method is not for the faint-hearted and you must be able to hold your resolve.

Sleep Training Books I Recommend

Being well-informed is important when embarking upon any sleep training journey. However, with so many books out there it can be difficult to know which ones are right for you.

Here’s a list of my favorites that offer lots of helpful information to help you help your 3-year-old sleep well:

(Plus, it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t recommend some books to read!)

1. No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers by Elizabeth Pantley and Harvey Karp

Unlike many sleep training books, the No Cry Sleep Solution is specifically designed to help parents who are battling with toddler sleep and offers a lot more than just sleep training a 3-year-old for bedtime. 

Elizabeth Pantley tackles all manner of sleep issues such as naptime problems, special sleep issues for twins, repeated nighttime visits to parents’ beds and so much more. 

If you are looking for a book that tries to look at toddler sleep issues from all angles then this is the one for you. You should also bear in mind that Elizabeth’s approach is gentle and child-centred so there will be no ‘crying it out’ in her solutions.

The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Gently guiding your toddler to better sleep becomes less of a battle with this book. The No-Cry Sleep Solution aims to provide you with researched, kind methods that respect your child's needs. 

Implementing the tips provided feels relevant and doable, as each chapter follows through with advice matched to common situations. 

What's truly beneficial is the understanding of sleep you gain. It's a relief to have your experiences validated and then addressed, flipping the script on bedtime struggles.

You're not just reading; you're learning and applying new strategies each night.

Pros:
  • Endorsed by many parents over the last 18 years for its effectiveness
  • Focused on gentle techniques
  • Includes valuable research insights
  • Offers specific advice for 1-5 year olds
  • Follows a gentle child-centred approach
  • Covers a variety of bedtime issues such as night wakings and getting your toddler to stay in bed
Cons:
  • May not work for every child
  • Some information might overlap with books you've previously read
  • The solutions require patience and time
Buy Now
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

2. The Gentle Sleep Book by Sarah Ockwell-Smith

The Gentle Sleep Book covers a wide range of ages from 0-5 years but I have included it in my list as I know from personal experience many parents who have used it and found it invaluable and refer to it as their ‘Sleep Bible’.

I believe this book is ideal for parents who are more relaxed about toddler sleep training but still want to raise a child with healthy sleep habits.

The Gentle Sleep Book: Sleep Solutions for Parents of Newborns to Five-Year-Olds

Sarah Ockwell Smith provides a holistic insight into childhood sleep in this book. She explains that very often our expectations are way too high when we expect our little ones to sleep through the night and that we aim for this perfection when they are not developmentally programmed to do so.

In a lot of ways, this is a book that makes parents who are battling with sleep issues feel ‘OK’ with what they are doing whether that be co-sleeping or nursing to sleep.

If you are happy to take this more relaxed approach to sleep training then this is probably the book for you.

Pros:
  • Offers a gentle approach to sleep training
  • Offers reliable evidence-based advice
  • Deals with night wakings as well as bedtime issues
  • Offers advice for each developmental stage
  • Covers how to deal with daytime nap issues too
Cons:
  • Mentions that bed sharing is OK... which is not for everyone
  • The solutions take time... however, there's never a quick fix
  • May be considered more of a parent self-help book than a sleep training book
Buy Now
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

3. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Dr. Marc Weissbluth

A fantastic sleep training resource for parents of toddlers Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Dr. Marc Weissbluth. It’s full of research-based tips and a step-by-step plan to help you understand the importance of sleep and how to foster it in your little one’s life.

It covers all age ranges but offers a lot of very interesting science-backed advice and information about childhood sleep that aligns with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) sleep training recommendations.

Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Mark Weissbluth, M.D

In this brilliant book, backed by decades of research and case studies, Dr. Weissbluth presents the Ferber method, a gentle form of sleep training that involves teaching babies to fall asleep independently with check-ins.

Charts and routines cover naps, nighttime sleep, and adjusting schedules. The book also addresses common issues like bedsharing, co-sleeping, night wakings, and daytime sleepiness giving you an all-inclusive sleep training approach!

Pros:
  • Provides individualized plans based on baby's exact age
  • Evidence-based and developmentally appropriate
  • Addresses a wide variety of common sleep questions
  • Offers flexibility within routines based on baby's temperament and needs
  • Teaches independent sleep skills
Cons:
  • Requires consistency to see full effects
  • Focuses heavily on rigid routines and schedules
  • May be overwhelming amount of information for some
  • The adaption of the Ferber Method can be difficult for some babies to handle
Buy Now
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

4. It’s Never Too Late To Sleep Train by Dr Craig Canapari

Written by a pediatrician, It’s Never Too Late To Sleep Train evolved from a father’s first-hand experience of sleep training his child coupled with years of clinical expertise.

The reason it’s 4th on my list is that the method is focused on letting babies cry it out.

Now, I am not an advocate of the cry-it-out sleep training method… HOWEVER…

A lot of parents have had great success with this book and its techniques and I would not be doing my job if I did not share ALL my knowledge of sleep training a toddler with you.

So if you’ve tried every other option for sleep training and nothing has worked, this book might be the one to change all that.

It's Never too Late to Sleep Train: The Low Stress Way to High Quality Sleep for Babies, Kids and Parents

In many ways, this book is written for the parents who are at the end of their tether. Those who have realized they do not have control over their little one's sleep and need serious help to get things back on track.

While exploring the different sleep training methods available, Dr Craig Canapri focuses on cues and consequences which are both very important to young children and he is on your side against bedtime battles.

As one reviewer puts it Dr Craig Canapari’s advice is ‘clear, funny, actionable, and yet flexible enough to work in various modern family configurations and parenting philosophies'

Pros:
  • Expert knowledge
  • Peer-reviewed and approved
  • Simple easy to follow strategies
  • Aimed at helping children who are often considered outside the optimum age group to sleep train (6 months to 6 years old)
Cons:
  • Focuses on bedtime sleep training and not night wakings
  • Some may find some of the methods harsh
  • The author does swear occasionally throughout the book
Buy Now
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

Managing Naps When Sleep Training A 3-Year-Old

If your 3-year-old is still in need of a nap during the day you will need to create a consistent nap schedule to support your sleep training.

An early afternoon nap after lunch lasting no more than 1-2 hours to avoid it impacting your 3-year-old’s readiness for bedtime is sufficient.

Naptime should be a peaceful period and this can be achieved by following a soothing pre-nap routine. This might include a story or a quiet activity.

Also, if your 3-year-old does not need to nap or only naps on certain days, you should encourage quiet time after lunch. 

I love quiet time because it enables your toddler some downtime to rest and prepare themselves to get through the day without becoming overtired and running the risk of disrupting bedtime.

Bear in mind that your 3-year-old should be having 6 – 6.5 hours of awake time before bedtime.

Addressing Common Sleep Training Challenges

At 3 years of age, some common challenges can crop up whilst you are sleep training. Here are the ones you need to be aware of, along with how to handle them:

  1. Resisting sleep and stalling at bedtime is a natural part of your child’s development. 3-year-olds are notorious for delaying tactics so stay one step ahead with requests for snacks and drinks by offering them within the bedtime routine so they cannot use them as an excuse to delay later. They also have serious FOMO so when your child resists bedtime, you must stay calm and consistent and make your bedtime expectations clear. 
  2. Constantly getting out of bed is another common sleep challenge at this age. To learn more about handling a toddler who gets out of bed, read the following posts: Tips For When Your Toddler Won’t Stay in Bed and 16 Top Tricks For When Your Toddler Keeps Getting Out of Bed
  3. Another challenge you might face is nighttime fears and nightmares. They are very common at this age and are not something that I consider needing conventional sleep training, they simply require gentle handling.  Reassure your child’s safety with a comforting bedtime routine. Use books to initiate conversation and help allay their fears. 
  4. If your child cries or screams when alone, I would always recommend responding with a brief check-in to assess the situation. Once you are happy that your little one is fine, maintain a balance of comfort and firmness, resettle your toddler, and leave the room implementing your sleep training method is necessary. Do not give in to their demands. Your 3-year-old is a lot smarter at getting their way than we give them credit for!
  5. Keep interactions short sweet and low-key at night. Re-settle and leave the room as quickly as possible or revert to wherever you are in the sleep training method. Using an audio app to resettle your little one is also a good solution.
  6. Address hyperactivity before bed by avoiding stimulating foods high in caffeine and sugar in the lead-up to bedtime. Establish a calm pre-bedtime routine that involves a low-key activity and always avoids the use of screens.
  7. A sleep regression is likely to present itself at 3 years old as a result of a big change in routine like starting pre-school, the arrival of a new sibling, or developing a fear. If you suspect a major event has triggered a sleep regression, it is important to keep to your established routine and consider consulting your pediatrician for advice. Read this post to learn more about The 3-Year Sleep Regression.
3 Year old Sleep Regression Featured

When To Seek Medical Advice

If after all your best efforts your 3-year-old is still not settling and sleeping well after 2 weeks, consider seeking some medical advice. 

A pediatrician can rule out sleep disorders and suggest your next steps. 

Your child’s well-being is the ultimate goal and if you are concerned about any aspect of your little one’s behavior, health, or development you should always seek professional advice.

NOTE: It is a good idea to go to your doctor well-prepared. Make a note of sleep patterns in a diary and any concerns and observations you have. This helps your pediatrician better understand your toddler’s sleep issues and have a clearer picture of what is going on at bedtime and nap time.

2024 Daily Planner One Page A Day - Spiral Hardcover

With one spacious page dedicated to each day, you'll have plenty of room in this delightful planner to write down all your to-dos, appointments, and notes for the year.

Ideal for parents tracking baby's sleep, feeding, and pooping schedules...

Or a sleep journal for toddlers...

Whatever your requirements for the diary need to be, this handy planner will tick the right boxes.

Buy Now
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sleep Training 3 Year Old

Looking for more information about sleep training a 3-year-old? Here are the most commonly asked questions about helping little ones sleep, answered just for you.

Q: How do I teach my 3 year old to self-soothe at night?

A: There are lots you can do to teach your 3-year-old to self-soothe at night. Use a night light or audio app and offer comforting items. Gradually removing your presence from the room at bedtime can also help either using the Chair Method or the I’ll be Back Method. When they wake at night, see if they’ll resettle themselves. If not, return them to their bed and continue your sleep training method.

Q: How long can I let my 3 year old cry it out?

A: If you are following the cry-it-out method, there is no time limit. You simply leave your toddler to cry. However, other methods can include leaving your toddler to fuss for short intervals, like five minutes, which gradually get increased as needed. The length of time you let them cry is down to how long you can manage.

Q: What approaches do child sleep experts recommend for training a toddler to sleep through the night?

A: To help a toddler sleep through the night, most sleep experts (myself included) recommend a recognizable and regular toddler bedtime routine, screen-free activities before bedtime, and positive reinforcement for staying in bed in a comfortable and cozy sleep environment. Firm but loving consistency with clear expectations is the key to success.

Q: Are there any gentle sleep training techniques suitable for a 3-year-old that don’t involve crying it out?

A: Yes, several gentle sleep training techniques do not involve crying it out including the ‘Chair Method’ or ‘I’ll Be Back Method’. Both of these are my preferred 3-year-old sleep training techniques.

Q: Is it too late to sleep train a 3 year old?

A: No, it is never too late to sleep train a child. If you’re struggling with getting your toddler’s sleep habits on track, sleep training is an acceptable method of helping your child learn how to sleep independently.

Need More Parenting Help?

Author Image Bio
Paula McLaren is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and a highly qualified childcare expert with over 40 years of experience as a Norland Nanny. She holds a BA (Hons) in Early Years Development & Learning (0-6 Years) and the prestigious Norland Diploma. Paula has worked as a night nanny, run a successful daycare center in London, and helped raise countless children using her tried and tested developmental and guidance methods.

Keep Reading