Q&A: 3 1/2 year old waking up in the middle of the night

Amy writes:

"I should preface this question by saying that my son has always had sleep issues of one kind or another (he didn't really sleep through the night until age 1 and often takes a long time to fall asleep) and we have not been strict about "sleep training." He is now nearly 3 1/2. While we have a good routine for getting him to sleep, he has started waking up in the night. It started about two months ago. There was no big change at the time which would have prompted this. He will wake up around 2 or 3 and either want me to come to his room or want to sleep in our bed. Also, he wants a bit of milk in his sippy cup. Not only is the milk bad for his teeth, it requires one of us to get out of bed to get it for him. After we go through this routine, he is back to sleep in about two minutes. Needless to say this is exhausting. We need to figure out a way to break this routine. Does anyone have any advice?"

First of all, this is totally normal. 3 1/2 is the Worst Age Ever* and along with the tantrums, whining, lying, drama, resistance, fragility, defiance and other nonsense often comes sleep disruptions.

Both of my kids could stay asleep once they fell asleep, but the going to sleep was killer. It took literally hours to get them to go to bed and then fall asleep when they were that age. This sounds like the opposite, that he can get to sleep but then he wakes up.

The good news is that he's going to go back to sleeping all night on his own in a few months, just because he'll be going from this stage of disequilibrium into a stage of equilibirum again. (The disequilibrium/equilibrium thing is from our favorite book about 3.5-year-olds ever, Your Three-Year-Old: Friend Or Enemy by Ames and Ilg.)

The bad news is that it won't happen tonight. So this is what I'd try:

1. No milk, but you can have water. Leave a sippy of water next to his bed so he can get it himself and leave you out of the loop in the middle of the night.

2. Decide whether you care if he comes in with you or not. If you don't, then maybe make a rule that he can come in with you if he sneaks in and doesn't wake you up. (I'd bet cash money that more kids spent time in bed with their parents at age 3 than as babies or toddlers.) If you don't want him in with you, then maybe come up with some ideas together about what he's allowed to do when he wakes up that doesn't involve calling out for you. (Read books? Snuggle a stuffed animal? Play with another toy?)

And of course there's no guarantee that either of these things will help, but at least you're trying something.

Who's got ideas or stories for Amy?


* For me personally, the 15-21 month stretch was worse both times, but then I really don't love toddlers anyway and just don't have the personal qualities necessary to parent toddlers with any kind of grace. But I think probably for most people 3.5 is worse.