Parenting

Sleep Regression: It's Not Just For Babies

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toddler sleep regression
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By the time your child turns one year old, you might be pretty darn stoked about how well they’re sleeping. Long gone are the bleary-eyed sleepless nights, you think to yourself. You really aced this sleep training thing, you say. And then it happens — toddler sleep regression, aka one of parenting‘s little reminders of how laughable it is to be smug when you’re raising tiny humans. Kids always find a way to one-up you (and deprive you of sleep). Of course, you can’t just not sleep. So, what do you do when your toddler suddenly decides to go on a snooze strike? And when does toddler sleep regression happen? Not to mention, why?! Seriously, because you’re exhausted.

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Alas, sleep regression is simply one of those things that kids go through and grow through. On the plus side, it doesn’t last forever and won’t undo all of the progress you’ve made with their nighttime routine. Here’s a rundown on what you can expect.

What is sleep regression?

Sleep regression describes what happens when your child just stops sleeping through the night the way they did post-sleep training. Or perhaps your little one practically sleep-trained themself into a well-established schedule of slumber — and suddenly all of that seems to vanish. Maybe they’re struggling to fall asleep or stay in bed. They might even be waking up for extended periods at night.

The point is, they’re just not getting those 11 to 14 hours of sleep they’re supposed to get. In turn, that means you’re not getting your high-quality alone parent-time at night or your medium-quality parent-sleep at night. And while it may be normal, it’s definitely doesn’t feel like a great phase.

When does toddler sleep regression happen?

Friends and fellow tired mothers, the answer to this one is… *shrug* Who knows? Just kidding. Sort of.

The truth is that sleep regression usually happens around 18 months old and again at two years old. But it could be a bit earlier for you, or a bit later. There’s a 15-month sleep regression for some, and 20-month for others. So, listen, we’d love nothing more than to tell you definitively when your child will experience this so that you can emotionally and mentally prepare. Unfortunately, there’s really no precise science to work off here. And, as you probably know by now, every child is different.

Why might this happen at the 18-month mark?

Basically, 18 months is just full of big developmental milestones for your child. They’re growing so much and learning so many new skills, so they’re finally finding their independence. You might look at your little one at this age and think, Wow, they’re not a baby anymore. “Toddlerhood is a time of emotional, biological and social change as the transition from babyhood to a new level of independence and growth occurs,” Dr. Darcia F. Narvaez told Psychology Today, adding, “It is completely normal for toddlers to wake during the night.”

Around 18-months or two years old is also when many parents choose to move their kids out of a crib and into a bed. If you’re one of those parents, you can probably personally attest to that transition’s impact on your child’s sleeping habits.

So what causes sleep regression, really?

Again, this isn’t a precise and well-researched science. However, experts speculate there could be numerous possible contributors. These may include:

Developmental Growth

Toddler sleep regression could be happening because of growth spurts or jumps in development. Your child is growing more aware and more independent.

Separation Anxiety

Children also experience separation anxiety at this age, which might make it hard for them to suddenly fall asleep in an empty room.

Fatigue

It could also be happening because of a lack of sleep — especially during the day. Yes, as a toddler, your child still needs that one nap. If they’re going to daycare, if their routine has changed, or if they’re starting to assert their independence by refusing to nap, that could really affect their sleep at night.

Teething

And of course, our old friend teething could be the culprit. It’s a renowned sleep-disruptor from a child’s first year, and unfortunately, little ones are still teething through most of their toddler years. So, yep. Curse you, teeth!

Can sleep regression cause sleepwalking?

Since sleepwalking in kids can be caused by fatigue or irregular sleep patterns, yes, toddler sleep regression may mean your little one sleepwalks during this time. And if you ever want to experience what it might be like to be a part of a scene from a Stephen King novel, say hello to sleep regression-induced sleepwalking. Few things in life are more disconcerting than noticing a living room light on at three in the morning, walking in, and seeing your toddler sitting up on the couch asleep with their eyelids mostly open.

Then again, you might prefer sleepwalking to fatigue-induced night terrors. Nothing gets you moving faster than a toddler screaming at two in the morning.

What can I do if my toddler won’t sleep?

There are definitely things you can do to fight sleep regression. Try the following tips and tactics to hopefully (fingers crossed) help you and your toddler get a bit more shut-eye.

  • Keep a good, long, nighttime routine. It will help your kid wind down and go to bed sleepy but awake.
  • Establish a set bedtime. If your child is missing those daytime naps, make up for that by moving bedtime earlier.
  • Does your kiddo have a lovey? Comfort is like baby Ambien. Put your toddler to sleep quickly by gifting them with a stuffed animal or blanket. Comfort objects also help counteract any separation anxiety. Just make sure the toy is safe enough for them to have in their bed or crib.
  • Make sure they’re expending enough energy during the day. It will help them sleep better.
  • Help your child see sleep as a reward instead of a punishment. Toddlers have more spirit than the energizer bunny, so the idea of a nap is truly torture. So, you have to sell it. Make it an event or even a race and show them how fun sleep can be.
  • Provide an incentive. This is not a bribe! You’re simply giving your child something to look forward to after their nap. That way they’re encouraged to go to bed because the sooner they do, the sooner they can have whatever you promised them.
  • Turn off all devices an hour or two before bedtime to get your kids mentally prepared to go to sleep. This means phones, iPads, and the television. Then turn off the lights in their bedroom and use the lamp to go through the rest of their nighttime routine. If your kid has a nightlight, make sure it’s dim and warm-colored.

Should you let a two-year-old cry it out?

Honestly, Mama, it’s your call. It depends on you and your baby. Although there are many positives to the “cry it out” method, there are also a few cons you’ll want to consider first.

PROS

  • They’ll understand that being in their bed means it’s time to go to sleep, even when they don’t want to. This means they’ll put up less of a fight when placed in their crib.
  • Letting your baby cry it out teaches them independence. It trains them to rely on themselves and self-soothe.

CONS

  • A major disadvantage to the “cry it out” method is that you have to hear your toddler… cry it out. This bothers many mothers the most. It can evoke feelings of extreme guilt or frustration.
  • You can inadvertently teach your nugget that crying is part of their bed and naptime routine, which is the complete opposite of your goal.

Does sleep regression pass?

Finally, we can pass on some good news — yes! Sleep regression should pass by itself in roughly one to three weeks, as long as you stick to your guns and don’t change your child’s sleep habits in any drastic ways. Until then, you’ll have to survive like the rest of us: on coffee and hope.

Need more toddler tips for those terrible twos? Check out our pages on toddler learning games, dealing with constipated toddlers, and more.

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