Having a child refuse to go to sleep or even stay in their room at night can cause great anxiety in parents, especially when the child is young. But using a little commonsense and a dose of patience can get you through the bedtime battles.

Q: My 3-year-old is a terror at bedtime! She used to go down great, then one night everything changed. I lay down with her in bed, but if I get up before she is asleep, she screams and gets out of bed. While I’m laying with her before she is asleep, she whines and makes crazy requests of me. I ignore her and then she’ll just yell. 

When I’ve had enough and leave her room, and my husband goes in, she kicks the wall and screams an incredible amount until she finally falls asleep with him in there. She can be sweet during the day but turns into a demon child at night. Please help!

A: Welcome to the Challenging Threes! In my own personal experience (I have four kids), the twos were a breeze, but the threes were, er, much more difficult. So this isn’t at all unusual behavior in a three.

By her whining and requests, she’s telling you that this isn’t working any longer. You’re lying down with her isn’t soothing, isn’t helping and is distracting her from the business of falling asleep on her own.

I can tell by your question that this is wearing you out. So let me be frank with you. The bad news is that you are partly to blame. The good news is that this means you can change and the problem will resolve itself.

By always lying down with your daughter at bedtime until she falls asleep, you have robbed your child of the ability to self-soothe herself to sleep. Now you’re paying the price as she becomes older and more demanding. You can fix this—but only if you’re willing to allow your child some major discomfort and tears of frustration.

By her whining and requests, she’s telling you that this isn’t working any longer. You’re lying down with her isn’t soothing, isn’t helping and is distracting her from the business of falling asleep on her own. Keep that in mind as you put my 6-step formula for a better night’s sleep into place.

  1. Stop cold turkey. No more lying down with her at all in her bed for any reason. Not to snuggle “for a minute.” Nothing.
  2. Inform daughter, gently, that you spoke with the Doctor and the Doctor said she’s big enough to fall asleep on her own. Expect loud protests. Ignore (don’t try to “reason” with her to get her to agree with you—ain’t gonna happen!).
  3. Tuck daughter into bed. Turn off light and leave room. Expect daughter will scream, cry, whine—in short, everything to stop you from leaving. Leave anyway (and ignore that niggling feeling you’re being a bad mommy. You’re not. You’re giving your daughter the gift of falling asleep on her own, which is priceless).
  4. If daughter gets out of bed but stays in room, let her. Is it really that important that she sleep in a bed? Kids can sleep anywhere!
  5. If daughter comes out of room, return her to room. Repeat.
  6. If daughter stays in room and/or bed, but screams, go in every five minutes to reassure her you’re still there but do not pick her up. Do not lie in bed with her. Don’t talk to her much at all. Just a gentle kiss or short hug, a “It’s time to sleep” and leave. Repeat.

You and your husband should tag team this, each taking turns to go into her room as outlined in #5 or #6. The first week, expect that this back and forth will seem endless. Stay calm. Stay the course. She will learn how to go to sleep on her own. You will get through this, and you will be so glad when you do!