- The 18-month sleep regression lasts 2-6 weeks.
- The 2-year sleep regression lasts 1-3 weeks.
- Toddler sleep regressions are usually caused by developmental growth, but can also be a result of external factors like teething and separation anxiety.
- A consistent nap and bedtime routine is important during a sleep regression to avoid overtiredness.
- Make sure too much sugar or screen-time aren’t adding to the bedtime battles.
By now, you’re no stranger to a sleep regression. And while they can feel like they last forever, the goods news is they don’t. They are normal and temporary.
There are two sleep regressions in the toddler years. Both last a few weeks - at around 18 months of age and 2 years of age.
Toddler sleep regression at 18 months
The toddler sleep regression around 18 months of age is an interesting one. Unlike infants, toddlers have the ability to recognise that if they don’t want to go to sleep they can do things to delay it. They have an increased sense of independence - and unfortunately, the ability to say no!
Like other regressions, not every toddler will experience this regression, or they may experience it to a lesser extent. It may even pop up before or after the 18-month mark for some toddlers. It’s common for the onset to seem quite abrupt - sleeping perfectly one day and refusing sleep the very next. And then it may end as abruptly as it began.
If your toddler does experience this sleep regression, you may find it lasts between 2-6 weeks .
Signs of the 18-month sleep regression
Sudden refusal to go to sleep
Is your little one crying, shouting or even just playing up when you put them in their cot? These are classic signs of a toddler sleep regression. They might be telling you “NO” outright or pointing to the door if they are pre-verbal. This can occur for night sleep as well as naps.
Whether you’ve been enjoying your toddler sleeping through for just a little while or a lot longer, having them wake up in the night again is a bit hard to take!
While it’s easy to lament, please know that all is not lost. Unless they pick up any new sleep crutches throughout this regression, they should go back to sleeping just as they did before.
Unfortunately, you should expect that their waking might be accompanied by increased crying and agitation .
No longer self-settling
If your toddler is very upset or agitated at bedtime, they might not be able to self-settle anymore. When they get very overwrought, you’ll need to calm them down before trying to get them to sleep again. Unfortunately, if your toddler is strong-willed you may find this happening over and over.
If they aren’t self-settling, it's important to use as few sleep aids as possible to get them to sleep, otherwise they may continue wanting them when the regression is through. But, it must be said, if you toddler reaches that point of overtiredness where you have to do whatever it takes - then please do so!
Why does this toddler sleep regression occur?
Around 18 months a period of significant growth and development occurs. This disrupts the brain hormones that regulate sleep as it rewires itself.
Physical, mental and emotional growth is often the root cause of a sleep regression. “It’s normal for 18-month-olds to gain mobility while becoming more communicative , including a heightened, yet dreaded, ability to harness the word ‘no.’” Cognitive abilities like reasoning and thinking develop further. They also experience emotional reactions more deeply than before. This is a common time for separation anxiety to be an issue.
It’s normal for 18-month-olds to gain mobility while becoming more communicative, including a heightened, yet dreaded, ability to harness the word “no.”Sleep foundation
There are also external factors that can play a part in the 18-month toddler sleep regression.
External factors may include:
Teething may cause sleep regression
This is a common teething age for both upper and lower molars (the first set) generally appearing between 13-19 months and the upper and lower canine teeth generally erupting between 16 and 23 months.
Change of routine can trigger sleep regression
Any big changes, whether to time or frequency of naps or even starting daycare can contribute to a sleep regression.
Sickness may cause sleep regression
When our little ones are sick, sleep is affected more often than not. They usually need more comfort and may pick up additional sleep crutches in this time as you try to help them through night wakings.
Travel could cause sleep regression
Going on holiday or visiting family can also bring on a sleep regression. The different surroundings can either be too exciting or cause some anxiety, resulting in impacted sleep.
Flying with a toddler can be a challenge in its own right, let alone having timezone shifts changing your sleep routine, these disruptions are also triggers for a sleep regression.
How to deal with this toddler sleep regression
- Stick to routines - your little one’s brain is working overtime, so consistency is key to give them some relief and help them to relearn good sleep behaviours. You should be continuing your established bedtime routine , or putting one in place if you haven’t already.
- Look for tired cues - focus on recognising and responding to their tired signs so that you don’t miss their ideal sleep window and end up with an overtired toddler on your hands.
- Be gentle but firm - if they are having trouble getting to sleep, always remain calm and offer them the comfort they need, while being firm that it is bedtime.
- Think long term - don’t introduce short-term strategies. Whatever you do to get through has to be something you’re happy to live with in the future. For example, if you don’t want to co-sleep permanently - don’t start now just to get through the regression. Focus on sleep strategies for the long term.
- Limit screen time - toddlers can be adversely prone to the effects of excessive screen time , make sure there is none within at least 2 hours of bedtime.
- Keep active - Toddlers need 3 hours of physical activity each day . It’s important they are exposed to natural light. Exposure at sunset is particularly helpful for the body clock to understand bedtime is near.
Toddler sleep regression at 2 years
The toddler sleep regression at 2 years is quite similar to the one at 18 months. The big difference is that your little one has even more independence that they like to exert, and night-time fears can start to come into play.
This regression is (thankfully) quite short-lived, lasting just 1-3 weeks.
Signs of the 2-year sleep regression
When the 2-year regression starts, you’ll likely find your toddler fighting bedtime again. If you have already made the switch to a toddler bed, it can make it even trickier, because they aren’t just verbally communicating their displeasure with bedtime, but they can now physically escape it too.
Night waking and early morning wakes might pop up again at this time.
Why does the 2 year old sleep occur?
Your toddler takes further leaps forward in their development at 2 years of age . They are also even more aware of what is going on around them - even when they are not there. Fear of missing out can be part of this sleep regression. And when they want to do everything themself (me do it!) it can really drag bedtime out.
Dropped the day nap too early
At 2 years old, it’s still recommended your child have a 1-2 hour nap and a bedtime that ensures your toddler doesnt exceeding 13 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period.
If you have dropped their nap altogether, they might have built up a sleep deficit and are extremely overtired, affecting their night sleep too.
If they are refusing naps, consider at least having quiet time. Or, you can give them the choice of napping in the cot vs. the pram etc. It’s better than no nap at all.
It’s age-appropriate for your 2-year-old to develop a fear of the dark , or something else which bothers them when they are alone. That can make bedtimes challenging.
How to deal with this toddler sleep regression
There are a few ways you can reinforce good sleep habits at this time.
- Remove distractions - remove temptation from the sleep environment. Any exciting toys and activities that are within sight of their cot/bed might prove too stimulating. Of course they would rather play than sleep! So remove those from sight.
- White noise - consider reintroducing white noise . This might help your toddler turn off from all the exciting things that have been happening that day.
- Use a cot - keep them in a cot if safe to do so . Many people are tempted to switch to a toddler bed at this age . But, doing it will not solve the regression and will actually give you another problem to deal with - them climbing out of bed whenever they want. You should only switch to a toddler bed if it is safer for them (eg. they are climbing out of their cot).
- Sugar and caffeine - skip the sugar and caffeine . Sugar and caffeine will only make settling at bedtime harder from a biological perspective. Foods containing tryptophan like turkey, bananas, chicken, kiwi fruit may help the body produce melatonin which is essential for sleep .
- Lower expectations - lower your own expectations. Don’t expect things to be perfect. Just do your best to get through without introducing any new sleeping habits, like patting to sleep, unless there is no other way to get them to sleep. Also tell your toddler your expectations - they can now understand what you want, so explain it to them!
Unfortunately, there’s no quick-fix for a toddler sleep regression. Like most aspects of parenting, you’ll want to focus on the big picture and build good habits to serve your little ones well in future.
But, if you’re concerned your toddler’s poor sleep might go deeper than a simple sleep regression, please be sure to seek medical attention.