Toddler Sleep Problem: My 3 Year old Needs Her Back Rubbed to Sleep and Back to Sleep! I am exhausted!

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  • January 25, 2011

Weekly Toddler Sleep Problem for The Sleep Lady:

“My daughter is almost 3 and for the last 6 months at least, she has woken 1-3 times during the night. All she needs is a quick back rub and she’s back asleep. If I don’t go in, her crying quickly escalates and then she’s really awake and takes a lot more to sooth back to sleep. I can’t continue this schedule! I thought by now I would be getting a lot more sleep than I am. No other kids, nothing has changed in the house. What can I do about this toddler sleep problem?” Carim


Dear Carim-

What you describe with your daughter is not that unusual! It may have started with a bad dream and you rubbed her back to sleep and it has continued from there. It happens so quickly!

First of all, I would make sure she is going to bed at a reasonable time (the average sleep need for a 3 year old is 10.5hrs at night and 1.5hrs during the day) at bedtime. Remember that she is probably overtired right now (just like you) and may need her bedtime to be earlier than usual until she catches up.

Create a “sleep manners” chart as I outlined in my book “The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight” that you review before her bedtime. If you are currently rubbing her back until she is asleep at bedtime then you will have to stop that as well (include that in the chart as one of the manners “Put self to sleep without Mommy rubbing your back to sleep”. Have a family  meeting to explain to her that you will no longer be rubbing her back to sleep but that you will stay with her as she learns to put herself to and back to sleep. Cut your back rubbing in half the first night and then do less and less over the next two nights. You can stay by her bed and follow the rules of the Shuffle.

When she wakes at night, go to her and point out that her “wakeup music” or “wake up light” is not on and that she is expected to have good sleep manners and lie quietly in her bed.  Sit next to her bed and reassure her, but do not rub her back to sleep. Review her sleep manners in the morning. Move your chair every 3 nights so you don’t create a new sleep crutch! Follow the rules of the Shuffle for children in beds outlined in that 2.5-5year old chapter and she should be sleeping thru the night again in 2 weeks! Expect her behavior to get worse before it gets better! Stay consistent and reward her positive behavior in the morning.

Sweet dreams!


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Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. She is the author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. Click here to read more about her.

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