Does your child wake screaming, out of breath and sobbing until he’s back in your bed at night? This despite your incentive charts, brand new big-boy bed and pretty room. Are you coddling him, or should you keep up the routine and tactics and ride it out?
The primary needs of a 3-year-old are rest, play and tears.
When I say a 3-year-old needs rest, you might think: "No kidding! What do you think we are trying to do here?" But I'm talking about a different kind of rest: A 3-year-old needs rest from needing to chase you around.
A young child's deepest need is to feel as if they belong and connect to their parents. This is a biological need that changes as kids mature, but it never goes away. And there is no one struggling more to belong than 3-year-olds.
Their bodies are developing in leaps and bounds, and they are becoming eager to take on the world. But then the brain jumps in and says: "Wait! It is dark! I am not with Mom or Dad. This is scary, and I am alone."
All that big-kid thinking goes out the window, and suddenly your son is crying and chasing you around the house. This is confusing for a parent, but your child is not trying to manipulate you.
Your child is not mature enough to plan all of this out. His brain is too young. It's as simple, and as hard, as this: The lights go out, and he is scared.
You can understand the futility of using incentive charts or rewards to keep him in bed. There is nothing more powerful than his need to be with you when he is afraid, so even though he loves a sticker on a chart or a treat in the moment, as soon as that light goes out, you are all that matters. Do you have to stop the stickers? Not necessarily. Just don't rely on them to help you change your son's behavior. I love a chart, but I would hand out a sticker even if the night didn't go well. Why? All your son really wants is your attention, and you are not going to spoil him by having fun with him.
So, what to do:
First, you are not coddling him. Caring for a crying 3-year-old is never coddling.
Second, remember that your son's primary need is to belong to you, so you need to strongly possess him at night. Throughout your bedtime routine, say things like "Son, I cannot wait to brush your teeth, and then I am going to shampoo your hair. We are going to sit on your floor and do your puzzles for 10 minutes and then read one book." Notice I'm not giving much choice. Three-year-olds are generally pretty fried by bedtime, and if you give them too many choices, they can become confused and drunk on the perceived power. In addition, children want us to strongly lead; it makes them feel safe. Go ahead and assume you know exactly what your son wants.
Third, check on him before he checks on you. In other words, do your bedtime routine and kiss him goodnight, and then, assuming he will be up pretty quickly after you leave, go kiss him again before he has the chance to get up. This may require what feels like constant check-ins, but instead of your son chasing you, you are meeting his need first. My hope is that his little brain will say, "Ah, Dad keeps coming back, I am OK," and then finally fall asleep. I am guessing this will be an up-and-down kind of effort. You may make some headway, only to have the routine ruined by a sickness, the holidays - the list goes on and on.
Finally, and I'll be frank here, you're just going to have to get through this knowing that there is a need to belong (for him) and a major need to sleep (for you). You may be so sleep-deprived, angry and spent that you just bring him into your bed. Or you may fall asleep with him in his bed for a while. Do what you have to do to get through a rough transition. Yes, there will be a time to hold some boundaries and welcome the tears, but only you can decide when that time is. You will be endlessly looking for the difference between holding a boundary and staying connected.
Lastly, if your son is becoming panicked when you leave the room, grab his hand, smile and say, "Mommy has to use the potty, and you are coming with me!" I know this is annoying, but if he is chasing you, it is your job to connect to him first. After lovingly forcing him to come with you everywhere, he may begin to trust that you will come back, and rest in that safety. You will need to stop saying things like "Son, stay here while I change the baby" and "Big boys can wait by themselves." Statements such as these, especially at night, only make things worse.
Stay patient and loving. He will get there.
-The Washington Post