A: A new age, a new sibling and a new big-boy bed — so many changes for a little guy. And I get it: This isn’t easy for anyone. If you took an informal poll of parents with a 3-year-old, almost all of them would say that they struggle with getting their little ones to bed.
Why is this? Does your child have separation anxiety? Do most 3-year-olds have a diagnosable anxiety disorder? No. But you are on to something when you address the separation. To understand your son’s behavior, we have to understand the primary needs of a 3-year-old: rest, play and tears.
When I write that 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.
Allow me to explain. 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 son 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.
Not only is the nighttime separating him from his main attachment, but now there is a new sibling in town. Your son sees the baby as another obstacle between you and him. Parents often worry about whether their child loves the new baby, but don’t worry. It is normal for a 3-year-old to be self-oriented; this is not a flaw in your son or your parenting. His survival depends on his emotional and physical attachment to you, so he is not overly concerned with his sibling — yet. It will all come with time. The point is: Everything you are seeing is normal.
Now that you see how primal your son’s need to keep you close is, 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. Taking care of a crying 3-year-old is never coddling.
Second, keep remembering 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 “Jake, 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.” You will notice that I am not giving much choice to your child. This is because 3-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.