Dr. Alan Greene on Sleep Disturbances

My 3-year-old has started waking up every night. What can we do about this?

Question

My 3-year-old has been waking up one to three times each night over the past three weeks. Sometimes she needs to go potty, other times she is just having fits. When we ask her what is wrong she says she doesn't know, or at times she just wants us. She shares a room with her older sister and we all wake up every time this happens. She stopped napping about six months ago and there haven't been any new changes in our lives recently. Any suggestions?

Answer

I have a few thoughts about your 3-year-old's sleep patterns. Often, whether they know it or not, a full bladder is what wakes kids up at this age. When a young baby's bladder gets full at night, no signal of it makes it up to the brain. But for older kids and adults, a signal reaches the brain and we start to dream about water and then about going to the bathroom. Then we wake up.

Most kids will say "I don't know" if asked if they need to go -- whether or not they do. I like to just say "It's time to try to go potty" and take them there. Many kids just pee, get sleepy, and fall back to sleep very quickly. Rest assured, this phase often doesn't last long. Children start making less urine at night, and when the signal gets to the brain, they can often just tighten the sphincter and hold it in.

Some kids do wake up for other reasons. For kids 3 and up, I recommend giving them a recording of their parents' voices singing quietly or reading a story that they can turn on by themselves if they wake up. The first night or two, they often stay up for a while listening, but soon it is familiar enough to listen to and not stay awake.

I've also seen many parents have success with a "free pass" card, where the child gets a cool card (which you can make together), good for a free pass to her parents' room once each night for a hug or a glass of water (if peeing isn't their issue). And if they get up more than once, you explain that they will be lovingly walked back to their room without a word and without eye contact. But once each night, whenever they need it, they can come in. Most kids try it out a time or two. After that, most kids start holding onto the card in case they might need it later and end up falling back asleep. Many parents of kids 3 to 9 have raved about this! It has solved sleep problems for many families.

 

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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