Dealing with toddler sleep regression

Unlike Baby’s height, the growth of their sleep at night doesn’t go just one way – not only do naps start to grow shorter as nighttime sleep grows, but toddlers’ sleep patterns tend to go through some ups and downs, and the occasional zig-zag, on their way to a mature night’s sleep. In the time between a little before 18 months and a little after 20 months, it’s fairly common for toddlers to go through a stretch of restless sleep, or returning to sleep habits parents thought they’d already grown out of. This is often called the 18-month sleep regression, although there are any number of reasons why a toddler might have an especially hard time getting enough sleep around this time.

Regressions and troubled sleep are as normal a part of many toddlers’ development as the things that can cause them. Meeting and passing normal developmental milestones can be enough to disrupt some toddlers’ sleep, and since, at around 18 months, toddlers’ physical skills are growing fast, there are many chances for development to disrupt sleep. Sleep disruption or regression can also be a toddler’s way of processing stress – and the things that cause stress for toddlers aren’t always obvious. Big events like switching daycare providers, or getting a new sibling, can cause toddlers stress, but any change, even changes that feel small to adults, can leave toddlers feeling a little stressed or uncertain, which can come out in their sleep.

Despite the blanket term of 18-month sleep regression, there are also a number of different ways toddlers might have trouble sleeping at this time. These difficulties include:

  • Trouble falling asleep at night or resistance to going to bed: Sleep resistance can be related to a few different things, but common culprits are separation anxiety and enthusiasm about the world. Toddlers Baby’s age often have trouble with transitions, and don’t like to slow down or stop having fun long enough to get a full night’s sleep. Having a predictable bedtime routine can help toddlers wind down enough to transition to relaxing and getting ready for bed. For toddlers who are still keyed up, leaving a few soft toys in the crib so they can play quietly and wind down a little longer can sometimes be helpful.
  • Unwillingness to take naps, or to take naps at home: Many toddlers going through regression during this time still nap easily, but for others, it’s naptime that takes the biggest hit. Since naps aren’t going to stick around nearly as long as nighttime sleep, and toddlers can tell the difference between napping rules and bedtime, naps can be a bit more “anything goes,” since establishing sustainable habits isn’t quite as important. Parents who notice that their toddlers nap more easily at daycare than they do at home might not take it as a compliment, but it could be – home during the day is just so exciting that some toddlers can’t imagine napping through it. Incorporating some elements of the daycare’s naptime routine, whether it’s a special naptime song, a snack and a story beforehand, or a back-rub, can sometimes help to channel some of that positive naptime energy.
  • Nighttime waking and restlessness: Nighttime waking can feel like true regression, especially to parents whose toddlers have been sleeping through the night for a while, but it’s not forever. There are two common strategies for coaxing toddlers back to sleep after they wake in the middle of the night, and both depend on keeping the atmosphere dim, quiet, and boring – soothing, but not a reward for waking up. The first is to go in and give the awake toddler a kiss, a pat on the back, or whatever they need for reassurance, then leave so they can fall asleep, going back in to check and reassure at different intervals until they fall asleep. The other is to stay with them as they fall back asleep, but to stay sitting beside them quietly, instead of picking them up, rocking them, or doing much talking to them. The idea is to be as reassuring but uninteresting to them as possible. The other problem parents of toddlers who have recently moved to a “big kid bed” commonly face is finding a tot wandering at night, taking advantage of their new freedom. Just like when they were waking up in their crib, the best way to address it is generally just to be quiet, boring, and predictable in the way you put them back to bed, although as always, the right thing to do really depends on your child’s temperament. Baby gates on the bedroom door to keep a wandering toddler from wandering off aren’t recommended at this age, since toddlers are often about ready to become mobile enough to climb over gates, which is a safety hazard.
  • Fears about going to sleep or the dark: At this age, when toddlers’ imaginations are growing fast, but their grasp on reality is still forming, it’s common for fears to start to emerge, and these fears can make toddlers unwilling to go to sleep, or afraid when they wake up during the night. Communication isn’t always easy with scared toddlers Baby’s age, but if you can get them to talk to you about what they are afraid of, maybe the next morning when they isn’t afraid anymore and might be able to express themself better, you may be able to help address their fears. This might be as simple as setting up a night light, so they can recognize that they are somewhere safe and familiar when they wake up during the night, or as involved as doing a “monsters go away” dance before bed. Toddlers’ fears aren’t always rational, so coming up with solutions that are imaginative and magical can sometimes be the best way to reassure them. Another common strategy is to have toddlers choose special stuffed animals to watch over them in their sleep.

Sleep in the toddler years can be tricky, but that difficulty doesn’t last forever, and the healthy sleep habits that can be so hard to establish during this time can help children out for the rest of their lives.

  • Kathleen Berchelmann. “How to get a 2-year-old to stay in bed.” Children’s MD. Children’s Hospital at St. Louis, May 19 2014. Web.
  • Claire Lerner, Rebecca Parlakian. “Sleep Challenges: Why It Happens, What to Do.” Zero to Three. ZERO TO THREE: Foundation for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, February 29 2016. Web.

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