Toddler sleep regressions hit just when you start to get hopeful that your toddler might turn out to be a good sleeper after all.
Maybe your kid is finally sleeping through the night. Naps are now consistent and drama-free. They sleep a solid 11-12 hours.
Then an illness strikes. Or a vacation. Or she starts day care. Or nothing at all happens. But your toddler’s sleep suddenly is almost as bad as it was when she was a baby.
Despite having learned the hard way about toddler sleep regressions from my son (now five), my two-year-old daughter’s sudden recent sleep issues during the holidays still surprised me. One day I was bragging to anyone who would listen about how fantastic she was as a sleeper. Then the next day she got a cold and a cough, and all her good sleep habits went out the window. She was waking up several times a night, waking up for good before 6 a.m., and refusing her naps.
Sleep Regression Defined
A sleep regression happens when a baby or toddler just suddenly stops sleeping as well as they did before. Regressions usually happen when there’s a surge in brain development. They can happen at predictable times in children’s development: somewhere around 4 months, 9 months, 18 months, and two years. (Those are just rough estimates.)
Sometimes sleep regressions coincide with major milestones, like teething, learning to roll over or stand up, or the start of separation anxiety. Older toddlers might start to need less sleep than before or they often decide to boycott naps (because playing and running around is much more fun!).
They might do things like:
- resist bedtime
- demand that a parent stays with them to fall asleep at nap time or bedtime
- get up far too early (and then be really cranky)
What To Do
I can wait out my two year old’s sleep regression and hope that it goes away. But I can also try a few things:
- Don’t change your sleep routines. Try not to start a new habit (like staying in the room until your toddler falls asleep) that you don’t want to keep. Don’t read just “one more book” five more times, if it’s your typical bedtime routine to read one book.
- Don’t get rid of naps. Even if they’re resisting naps, most toddlers need naps until age three or beyond. Keep your nap schedule, even if on some (or most) days she doesn’t sleep. The vast majority of the time the nap will return after the sleep regression passes.
- Keep bedtime early. This may seem counterintuitive, but when a toddler’s sleep is all over the place, he is at risk of becoming overtired, which will make the whole situation worse. Most toddlers’ natural bedtimes are between 7 and 7:30 p.m. (If this seems insanely early to you, try reading my favorite Slate parenting writer Melinda Wenner Moyer’s piece in which she defends “absurdly early bedtimes” for young children.) In fact, during my toddler’s present sleep issues, I have been putting her down at 6:30 p.m., and it’s helping!
- Don’t Assume They Need a Lot Less Sleep. Yes, as they get older, toddlers do need a bit less sleep. But just because your toddler is resisting a nap or bedtime by bouncing around the crib or singing songs or screaming for an hour, it doesn’t mean that she’s not actually tired. Up until age 3, toddlers still need 12-14 hours of total sleep (night + nap). STAY CONSISTENT.
- Prepare for Boundaries To Be Tested. Toddlers are all about testing limits. That’s literally how they learn about the world. They test a limit, like refusing to take a nap; and we, as parents, guide them with clear limits. (Yes, you WILL take a nap because you need that sleep to be healthy and happy.) As they get older, toddlers get smarter: they realize that the world doesn’t stop when they take a nap or go to bed earlier than their parents. And they want to join in! For me, it helps to think about testing sleep routines in that way. They’re just being normal toddlers; it’s certainly not personal!
- Prepare for Nighttime Fears. Toddlers also might start being afraid of the dark (or monsters or the closet) for the first time. They might begin having scary dreams. Their minds are developing in giant ways, including their imaginations. Be sympathetic to their new anxieties. You can help them pick out a night light. Or introduce a new lovey (one with monster-fighting powers). Or read a story book about battling sleep fears.
Most sleep regressions are temporary. They’ll go away in a few weeks on their own, as long as you do stay consistent and don’t develop any new sleep habits that you don’t want to continue.
And if your toddler isn’t sleeping because they’re climbing out of the crib, or you decided to move your kid to a big kid bed and it’s not going well, read my post about that particular form of sleep disaster.
Want more toddler sleep tips? Click here to get my free PDF: 7 Toddler Sleep Problems Solved!