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Bedtime & the Terrible Threes

Bedtime & the Terrible Threes

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

First, thank you for your advice about potty rewards. We more or less followed your advice, and he has been totally potty trained for what feels like forever. In fact, he didn’t even regress when the baby came.

Here’s the new thing. There’s always something, right?

He had been a great sleeper since he night-weaned around one. As in, he slept for 11-12 hours straight without waking literally Every Single Night for two years. We transitioned to the big boy bed last spring, no issues. He gave up pacifiers soon after the baby came, no issues. He’d never had a tantrum that lasted longer than, I dunno, 30 seconds.

And then he turned three (he’s just a tiny bit younger than Ike).

By the time he had been three for two weeks, I was calling friends crying about how three was so much worse than two. Button pushing, boundary defying, starting to ask for extra stories or cups of water at nap time, etc etc. While on vacation later in the summer he woke up in the middle of the night a couple times and needed a hug, but we were in a strange place and it seemed reasonable.

And then he started preschool. He LOVES preschool. He loves his teachers, he loves his friends, he loves his carpool home. But he’s spending much less time at home with his familiar things (me, babysitter, baby, dogs, toys).

We expected some acting out. But bedtime has turned into WAR. His first week of school, my husband and I had weird–unfortunate and unavoidable–schedules, with the result that there was only 1 day when we were both there at bedtime (usually I start his bedtime routine, then switch and go to the baby and my husband finishes up). Then the next week my husband was traveling. And the third week I had two late work events. You get the idea–new routines, new experiences, too much change, not enough consistency. Plus the baby started cruising, which means the play area is baby-optimized and some of his things are less prominent (though still visible! We’re not total idiots).

Last night was the worst yet. There was screaming, hitting (from the kid, not from us!), kicking (ditto!), holding a door closed (that one is on us), and lots of pathetic protest. I think — though I’m a little fuzzy – that it started because we wouldn’t let him crash the baby’s story time. But then there was something that led to a time out, except he refused the time out, which meant we said no bedtime story. Because, you know, you can’t REFUSE a time out with no consequences. I mean, you can imagine. Oh, and a huge dose of “I want Mommy, not Daddy”.

I’ve never seen anything like it, though I’ve read about it on many a blog, so I know I’m not alone. Eventually he calmed down, started using words instead of screams, asked politely if he could be put to bed, and my husband tucked him in with a kiss an hour after his normal bedtime. He was asleep approximately 5 seconds later and more or less didn’t move (per the video monitor) until it was time to wake up.

I think some of this is because the preschool schedule has cut naptime short, so he’s overtired (it’s half day school, but then there’s a lot of things he wants to sneak into the mid-day/afternoon at home). I’m going to prioritize fixing naps so that he’s not so tired. But also, he doesn’t eat at dinner. I won’t short order cook. I make a dinner that everyone should be able to eat (no super weird ingredients, if the “real” version is spicy his is less so, always something on the plate that he likes), and then it’s up to him. If he doesn’t eat…he doesn’t eat. But of course that exacerbates this – in the past it didn’t matter, as we eat close to bedtime so we can have family dinner – he’d fall asleep quickly at bedtime, wake up cranky in the morning but not be expected to do anything before breakfast. So we ignored it when he claimed not to like spaghetti (untrue) or some other food that he’d inhaled thirds of two days earlier.

Do I put string cheese on his plate every night until we’re past this? Do we buy a lock for his door and let him scream (the baby doesn’t seem to notice)? Do we just give in to his whims given how volatile things have been?

(We have a star chart. While that is sufficiently motivating for things like sharing toys with his sister and brushing his teeth, it is not at all effective for this. He gets out of control).

-dreading bedtime.

Welcome to three! IT’S OFFICIALLY THE WORST.

So first of all: Deep breath. You’ll get through this. You’ve correctly identified all the swirling whirling reasons behind the recent meltdowns — too much change, not enough consistency, an overtired, hungry, jealous-of-new-baby child who just wants to EXERT HIS WILL ON THE WORLD.

Off the top of my head, because I’m guessing you aren’t in the mood to hear my long, rambling Deep Thoughts on all the individual issues in play here, but would rather just get to the damn action items already:

1) Move bedtime earlier. Even just 15 minutes. Half hour. He’s exhausted and that’s not helping. Fixing naps is a good start, A slightly earlier bedtime won’t immediately solve the tantrum issues, but it at least means the tantrums aren’t significantly cutting into his established, much-needed sleep time.

2) Combine bedtime routines. He sounds very jealous. He sounds like he is very much not a fan of you leaving mid-bedtime routine and handing things over to Dad while the baby gets your attention. So try to combine what you can. This is probably the most appropriate area to seek a compromise on, since a combined bedtime routine isn’t a “bad habit” you’ll regret later. In fact, you’ll probably appreciate having steps combined down the road. Read bedtime stories all together. Nurse or bottle feed the baby in his room while you read aloud. Hold and rock both of them. You obviously don’t want to screw up the baby’s routine, but if she’s pretty chill and ignores his screaming, try to find a way to merge their routines so everybody stays together with him, up until final lights out in everybody’s respective rooms.

3) Stay consistent at dinner. This one, on the other hand, is where I am a Big Old Mean. But! Believe me, you will regret caving at dinner to get through the terrible threes and it will become a Whole Big Thing later and it will SUCK. BALLS. Don’t do it. We’re going through fairly regular dinner strikes with our three year old right now too. (Seriously, children, stop lying about not liking spaghetti. EVERYBODY LIKES SPAGHETTI.) Ike had a bad habit of filling up on milk or juice before (or during) dinner, so now he drinks water with dinner, just like his brothers. This. Is. An. Outrage. He pitches a fit over this several times a week, and for some reason STILL thinks that by refusing to eat, we’ll cave and get him the milk or juice he’s screeching for. It’s a power struggle, plain and simple, and has nothing to do with the food in front of him.

Unfortunately for our three year old, he’s our THIRD three year old and this ain’t our first dinner strike rodeo. No one’s going to make you eat. Whatever. No one’s getting you milk in the sippy cup you’ve completely outgrown, especially since I know you’ve gotten more than enough milk for one day already. No one’s going to give you string cheese and Goldfish crackers because you’ve decided chicken is unacceptable. But know this: You don’t eat dinner, you go to bed earlier. Not even as a punishment, but more because I want to get you to breakfast as soon as humanly possible, and to get you to sleep before you realize that oh. Yeah. Eating probably would have been a good idea. Usually bedtime around here is 8/8:30. If Ike refuses to eat dinner, it’s more like 7/7:30 for him, which also means he misses their one nightly cartoon. Some nights a reminder of this consequence will get him to eat. Some nights it doesn’t. I try focus on not giving a crap and letting him make his choice.

I sense there’s a direct tie between Ike’s dinner-strike antics and whether or not he napped at preschool. He goes to the Nap Room every after day after lunch, but his teacher reports Actual Sleep only happens about 50% of the time. This makes me feel less guilty about sending him to bed early on those nights, if that makes sense. It feels like a punishment to him, but I see it more as making the Mom Call to prioritize his needs. And he clearly needs sleep more than an extra 30 minutes of TV time.

I’m going to guess your son is acting out for negative attention, which is tied to the new-ish sibling jealousy, combined with a lot of change, the physical demands of school, and being thrown by some unavoidable scheduling hiccups that kept you guys away from him. Don’t prod or remind him to eat. Don’t scold no matter how irritating it is. Make sure the baby isn’t sucking up all your attention, and praise him for literally WHATEVER you can think of.  Sure, he’s not eating, but is he sitting up in his chair? Generally demonstrating some kind of nice table manners? AWESOME GOOD JOB.

(This is so much easier said than done, I know, especially at the end of a long day of button pushing and irrational three-year old behavior. It is damn effective, however, to counteract negative-attention-seeking behaviors with a steady stream of positive attention.)

If he still tantrums and behaves unacceptably at bedtime, well, that’s probably up to you on how to handle it. I tend to avoid time-outs for bad behavior at bedtime, personally, because I sense my kids catch quickly catch on that they can use them as a stalling tactic, and act out accordingly. Usually, tantrums or hitting or whatever just means you go to bed IMMEDIATELY, do not pass go, do not collect your 300 stuffed animals you need in your bed. I have taken away the bedtime story as well. But again, everybody’s discipline methods are their own, and it sounds like the eventual time out did its job and calmed your son down.

We generally respond to bedtime misbehavior by doing our very, very best to stay calm and not let them see that they are driving us over the edge. We say goodnight, turn out the lights, and close the door, even if they’re still mid-freak-out over God-knows-what and standing in the middle of the room. This usually startles them out of the tantrum because wait! Come back! They’ll come out, and then we guide them back in for calm tucking in and kisses. Rinse and repeat as necessary. For you guys, focus on tips 1) and 2) the most — kick off the routine a little earlier tonight, and try to switch up the half-mom/half-dad duties so your son doesn’t feel like you’re ditching him mid-routine. Try to drastically up the amount of positive attention you give him during the day — not just stuff he does at your request, but just anything good/pleasant you “catch” him doing that isn’t button-pushing or boundary-pushing.

And once he’s in bed, go back to the kitchen and pour yourself some wine, and remember that they’re only three for one year, and it’ll be a least another couple years before you have another three year old and get to go through this ALL OVER AGAIN.

Published October 6, 2014. Last updated August 19, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Claire

    October 6, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    My son turns 3 in 77 days (apparently it’s 79 till Christmas – I’m not that crazy) and I’ve been dreading the threenager phase. Life is good now! But with a 19 month age gap I get the distinct feeling that it will go on for quite some time 🙁

  • sassy

    October 6, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    My son just turned 2. He refuses dinner about 5 days out of 7, but then he wakes up very early hungry. Because he’s trying to kill me I think. But his problem is also in part because of a preschool transition.

    I second the no time outs during bed time it took my son exactly one night to realize he could use them as a stalling tactic. And moving bed time up. Going to bed at 7 works wonders.

  • S

    October 6, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    I second combining the bedtime routines.  We do everything together right up until lights out.  Everyone gets time with both mom and dad but together.  So one book from mom, one from dad.  Brush teeth together.  Etc. Etc.  That’ll help with any scheduling issues too.  The one thing we do though is let our 4yo stay up just a tad bit longer, which makes her feel special. So after bedtime routines are done, one parent goes off with our 22mo and sits with her for a few minutes in her room.  The other parent does one last potty run with the 4yo, and if it’s fast, she gets a made up story after lights are out.  Baby doesn’t take that long most nights (because she’s pretty much ready we take her off), so these last 10 minutes or so with the 4yo are often with both mom and dad, and she likes that too.  

  • Margaret

    October 6, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    So there’s the terrible two’s and the horrible three’s. After that, things get better, right?

    Also…I was a kid that hated spaghetti, and never grew out of it. I preferred turnip and brussel sprouts. I’m guessing I’m an outlier.

  • 4-year-old's parent

    October 7, 2014 at 9:22 am

    In addition to Amy’s advice, I would just think about ways you can give your little guy some extra love and attention OUTSIDE of the bedtime battle. He misses you. He is more independent, which he likes, but it is scary too, and he wants to know you still love him.

    Also, it is a pain in the ass for us, but testing us is something they need to do to grow up and become  independent people. An always perfectly behaved child would be easier for us, but it wouldn’t necessarily make life easier for him once he grows up. Your job is to do your best to stay calm, not let him set all the rules, and keep loving him even when he is a total #@”%&. 

    You will get through this. 

  • MR

    October 7, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Definitely move bedtime earlier. My daughter used to go to bed at 8:30pm, and then she started transitioning naps. They were waking her up earlier (at my request because she was staying up way past when I wanted to go to bed and keeping everyone else up). She was cranky and ornery and just oh so THREE, and it was exhausting and I couldn’t handle it. So, one day when she was throwing a royal THREE, I picked her up, took her to her room and dressed her for bed and layed her on her bed, and turned out the light, at 7pm. For two minutes she threw a royal “I’m not tired, I don’t want to go to bed!!!” tantrum. And then it was quiet. 15 minutes later I peeked in and she was out. And she slept all night and was a happy kid again the next day, so we moved her bedtime up, and she goes to bed at 7pm every day now. She now she has a strict 7pm bedtime, and she is back to being her sunny self. Your kid is exhausted. Put him to bed MUCH earlier, like an hour. He may cut out the nap during the day, but he will be much happier overall, and it will mean YOU are much happier. I thought it would be awful having her go to bed so early, but she goes down sooooo much easier now, and is just in a better mood all day. Good luck!

  • Jenny

    October 7, 2014 at 9:50 pm

    He might be ready to drop his nap and go to an earlier bedtime. My 3 yo was a huge pain at bedtime for a long time before I decided to try not letting her nap. And voila, we had our happy kid back at bedtime. And also now she lies down and goes right to sleep at 7 where she used to mess around and talk and sing and read books FOREVER after lights out when she napped.

  • IrishCream

    October 8, 2014 at 11:26 am

    We have had bedtime tantrums so epic that we seriously worried that the neighbors were going to call Child Protective Services on us. Not even joking. My three-year-old could scream for 45 minutes. The biggest thing that made a difference? Her fourth birthday. Things that helped make the tantrums a once-every-few-weeks thing instead of every few nights: a sticker chart and prize box. Every good night earned a sticker the next morning. We started with 3 stickers earning a prize (bubbles, stickers, fancy crayons) and then gradually increased the number of stickers needed. A reminder about earning a sticker was enough to turn her behavior around if we caught it early and she wasn’t too overtired. Ignoring the tantrums as best we could helped. Um…yeah, that’s all I got. Like I said, age was the biggest factor. This too shall pass, and she was a delightful and well-behaved kid in almost every other regard.

    And we follow the same dinnertime rules as you, but we allow a piece of plain sandwich bread if they don’t want what we’re serving. That’s boring enough that it doesn’t incentivize skipping the meal in favor of the alternative, but nutritious and filling enough that I’m not worried about anyone starving. That might help ease your mind on that front.

    • IrishCream

      October 8, 2014 at 11:28 am

      Oh, and if you do the sticker thing or other reward system, don’t ever say mid-tantrum that they’ve lost their sticker. Wait and talk about it the next morning. Once they know the sticker is gone, so is any shred of motivation to get their s–t together.

  • JenVegas

    October 8, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    OK, bedtime at our house isn’t perfect but it isn’t horrible. What I REALLY need to know is how to keep our 3 year old (4 months until 4!!) IN BED until a decent hour in the morning. We have a light up timer/alarm thingy that stopped working right around when he turned 3 and now he just doesn’t care at all whether or not the owl is green. He just comes marching into our room and demands cuddles and scooby-doo cartoons and then gets mad when I tell him I’m busy getting dressed. Because that 20 minutes at 6am is MY TIME. It’s ALL I’VE GOT! How do I get it back???

  • OP

    October 9, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    Thanks Amy! Thanks everyone!

    I will take the advice, I promise, especially the part about the wine.

    His bedtime is 7pm. I don’t think it can be much earlier without totally screwing everything

    (and, actually, it’s a little better since I submitted this – we figured out a better naptime schedule, and that has helped)

    Three is the worst. THE WORST. 

    • Jessica

      October 13, 2014 at 9:27 am

      Alternative things to do and a sticker chart.
      I think Amy mentioned she has a snack drawer in the refrigerator, a ‘quiet box’ of stuff for them to do and a resolute ‘you get nothing from me until X time’.  

      I know a couple of people who do variations on that.  They’re almost 4, they can keep themselves busy for a little bit.  Because yeah, my time, mine.

  • Zoe

    October 15, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    OMG I could have written this, OP, except instead of the new baby I have another 3-year old. (Yep, twins.) Three is the WORST. Good luck!

  • Zoe

    October 15, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Oh and thanks to Amy for the awesome advice, as always. 

  • Meg in VT

    October 27, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    So glad I read this today, after TWICE trying to calmly put my 3-year-old into a time out and having her totally refuse to stay in the chair. Parenting moments when you think ‘Now wtf do I do???’

    As far as dinner, we have the same problem and partly it’s just being very tired from a new, more demanding school routine…. and partly that they just don’t need to eat as much at 3 (actually reading the sheets sent home from the Dr. checkup reminded me that this is a time when kids are growing less quickly and not as interested in eating… and then I remembered almost losing my mind when our now-5-year-old went through that, too, at the same age). Anyhow, it does pass, and they do not starve!  I find the 3yo eats just one ‘real’ good meal a day, while a 5 yo eats at least two. As long as they snack and eat well at least once, they are probably getting all the calories they need. Kids really will eat when they are hungry. And if they are given food when they’re not, they’ll turn it into a power struggle. GRRRRRR!