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Practical Tips if You’re Struggling with A Four-Year-Old Sleep Regression

Is your four year old suddenly struggling with sleep? Many preschoolers go through a 4 year sleep regression, including mine! Here are some practical tips to help your family get sleep!

4 year old girl smiling

Our daughter was almost a perfect sleeper up until her toddler years.

We had few sleep problems and never struggled with the four month sleep regression, 6 month sleep regression, 9 month sleep regression, or even the 12 month sleep regression.

We transitioned to a toddler bed at age 2.5 and I thought we were in the clear when it came to sleep!

That was until all the toddler sleep regressions hit, starting with the 2 year old sleep regression.

She started coming out of her room in the middle of the night, wanting to be with us.

We tried co-sleeping but it isn’t very comfortable to wake up to someone sleeping on top of your face.

We knew we wanted her to sleep in her own bed so we set up new boundaries and nipped it in the bud and then we were fine until a 3 year old sleep regression hit.

Somehow that one seemed worse.

We pulled out all our tricks and had smooth sleep again after setting up new boundaries and sticking with them.

I thought surely we were in the clear.

And then recently, our worst sleep regression hit when my daughter was 4 years old.

It went off and on for weeks until I had to pull myself together and treat myself like I would a client.

I had been doing so many different things out of exhaustion and desperation and finally was able to look at it from a different perspective.

See what we did to move past the 4 year old sleep regression and how we all got our sleep back!

young girl laying down in bed - 4 year old sleep regression

Is There A 4 Year Old Sleep Regression?

There’s nothing physical or biological that happens around 4 years old that will make your child go through a regression, like some of the other common sleep regressions.

And a 4 year old sleep regression is typically related to behavior more than it is sleep. Even a good sleeper will likely experience sleep issues at some point in their childhood.

That being said children ages 2 through 4 years old are especially good at testing boundaries. It’s their job! Even big kids will continue to test boundaries well past the toddler phase.

It’s pretty common for these ages to have bedtime battles, come out of their room at bedtime, or wake up in the middle of the night.

But how long this sleep regression lasts will largely depend on how you and your partner handle it as well as your child’s personality.

mom and 4 year old in mom's bed

Why is My 4 Year Old Suddenly Waking At Night?

If your 4 year old is suddenly waking up at night, the first thing to check is their sleep schedule.

Are they still napping?

If so, nap time may be a key indicator of why they are waking up in the middle of the night, protesting bedtime, or even waking up too early in the morning.

Your 4 year old doesn’t need nearly as much sleep as they once did!

At four years old, 10 to 12 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period is appropriate.

If your child is still taking a midday nap and it’s impacting their night sleep, they probably need less sleep and it’s likely time for them to stop napping and to transition them to quiet time.

Here’s a sample schedule for your 4 year old.

4 Year Old Sleep Schedule

7:00 am – Wake up / Breakfast

9:00 am – Snack

12:00 pm – Lunch

12:30 to 1:30/2:00 pm- Quiet time

2:30 – Snack

5:30 – Dinner

7:00/7:30 pm – Bedtime

If you’ve already eliminated the nap and your 4 year old’s sleep schedule is spot on, there are plenty of other factors that can lead to a sleep regression around 4 years of age including night terrors or bad dreams, a new sibling, potty training, developmental milestones, growth spurt and growing pains, starting a new preschool, or even a new bout of separation anxiety.

Whatever the reason may be, let’s see how we can keep your 4 year old in their bed and not waking up all night!

4 year old girl at bedtime with dad reading books

How Do I Get my 4 Year Old to Stay in Bed All Night?

Different strategies will work for different kids, depending on their personality.

I’ll share the things we tried, the things that were not effective, and what ultimately helped us beat the 4 year old sleep regression!

The good news is at 4 year olds can comprehend exactly what we’re communicating and are highly motivated intrinsically!

1. Consistency is Key

The best way to kick a regression is to be extremely consistent.

Kids need to know that we say what we mean and we mean what we say.

If you talk a big talk about your child staying in their big kid bed all night, but then let your child crawl into your bed at 2 AM, then they know you don’t really mean business.

As difficult as it is to stay consistent at 2 AM, it is crucial!

Make sure you and your partner are on the same page and are sending the same clear message to your child.

If you are fine with letting your child crawl into your bed each night, then let them crawl into your bed when they want! But if you want to keep them out of your bed, make sure you don’t sometimes let them into your bed out of desperation and other times stand firm in keeping them out of your bed.

Those mixed messages can be really confusing to young children and they truly won’t know what to expect.

Keep a consistent bedtime routine each night to help cue to your child’s brain that sleep is coming. This will help reduce bedtime battles.

young boy giving mom a high five

2. Set the Expectations During the Day

Once you’ve decided on what your boundaries will be, it’s time to clearly communicate that to your child during the day.

Hold a family meeting where you talk about the new expectations and how you and your partner will handle it if your child doesn’t meet those expectations.

Lay it all out there and use role play to help your child process through the new expectations and create buy-in.

Hold this family meeting at a time when everyone is already in good spirits. It’s not a time to discipline your child, simply a time to share the new expectations with them.

sticker charts can help with a 4 year old sleep regression

3. Use A Reward System

Find your child’s currency and setup a simple reward system such as a sticker chart or a treasure chest full of inexpensive toys. Positive reinforcement can go a long way!

Perhaps your child loves stickers. Each night that they stay in their bed, they get a sticker on the chart the next day! After three stickers, they get to go on a fun adventure with mom or dad.

Make a big deal of your reward system so your child feels proud of staying in their own room.

The reward system can really be anything. It just needs to be something that motivates them and an immediate reward. Kids this age won’t have as much patience to save up 30 days of stickers for a big toy for example.

4. Use An Okay to Wake Clock

Kids have no concept of time. If your toddler is waking up too early, an okay to wake clock can be especially helpful. I love the Hatch Rest or Mella Little Hippo.

You program the clock to red or orange during night sleep and it stays that color throughout the night. You can then program your desired wakeup time and the clock will change colors once it’s time to wakeup for the day.

These clocks give your child a very concrete way to know when it’s time for bed and when it’s time to wakeup.

When you first get the new clock, go over it with your child and role play “sleeping” and “waking up” when the clock is at different colors.

4 year old awake in bed hugging a stuffed animal

5. Use a Bedtime Pass

This was a new concept that I introduced to my daughter after she started waking up multiple times in the middle of the night.

We created a bedtime pass that was good for one final kiss, snuggle, tuck-in, etc after bedtime. I explained that she was able to use the pass one time in the night. Once she used the pass, she had to surrender it and then stay in her bed.

The first couple of nights, she brought her pass to me in the middle of the night and wanted her blankets back on her.

After about one week of that, she stopped waking up completely.

Part of the magic in the bedtime pass is that it gives kids some control over when they come out of their room. Some kids will save their bedtime pass in case they need to use it later on in the night, and end up not using it at all.

little girl playing outside

Give it Time

Sleep disturbances will go away if you stick with it!

If your child gets out of bed, quietly walk them back to bed with little-to-no interaction. Try your best to detach yourself emotionally from any middle of the night wakings.

I know it’s so hard when you’re tired and frustrated in the middle of the night!

Kids feed off our emotions and sometimes even negative attention is good enough for them, so it’s best to just keep calm and stick with your plan!

As a sleep consultant, I’ve helped plenty of big kids get back on track.

If you’re struggling with your 4 year old and want to learn more about how I can help your family get the sleep you need, book a free call! I’ll go over my sleep packages and share how I can help your family get sleep! Book your free call here.

Amy Motroni

Lindsey

Thursday 12th of May 2022

Helpful stuff here, but I feel like I've tried it all! Our 4 year old son is extremely emotional and deals with sometimes intense separation anxiety. When we take him back to bed in the middle of the night, there are screams and cries of retaliation when we try and leave the room. He shares a room with his 6 year old sister, so there's the fear of him waking her. Inevitably, one of us ends up sleeping on the floor next to him just to get some shut-eye, because the process of taking him back to his bed can go on for hours! Do you have tips for kids who struggle with ADHD, sensory processing disorders, real separation anxiety, etc?

Amy Motroni

Thursday 12th of May 2022

Hi Lindsey,

Honestly, that is a bit out of my wheelhouse. But if you'd like, I can connect you to a sleep consultant who has experience in working with kids with those challenges.

Let me know and I'll reach out to a few colleagues!

Amy