Dealing With Toddler Sleep Regression

Sleep struggles are common around 18 months to 2 years because of developmental changes. Use our guide to determine what causes toddler sleep regressions, and figure out how to get your child on a better evening routine. 

Some babies sleep through the night within several months of birth, leaving those parents feeling like they escaped the worst of the bedtime issues. For others, it takes until 6 months or more to finally start "sleeping like a baby." But around their second birthday, some toddlers experience a sleep regression characterized by a change in snoozing habits. Keep reading to learn more about sleep regression ages, causes, and solutions.

What Is Toddler Sleep Regression?

Common symptoms of toddler sleep regression include refusing to go to bed, waking up during the night (after previously sleeping through), and resisting naps. The issue often stems from natural growth and development, as well as stress, separation anxiety, or a change in routine. Toddlers may also try to assert their newfound independence in any way they can—and that includes not wanting to go to bed or attempting to control their own bedtime.

How Long Does Toddler Sleep Regression Last?

Not all toddlers experience a sleep regression, but many do. Toddler sleep regression generally occurs between 18 months and 2 years of age, although the exact timing is different for each child. If you've noticed the symptoms, rest assured that most sleep regression stages last for only a few weeks at a time. It's likely that pretty soon your little one will start sleeping through the night again, and they'll no longer wake up crying.

How to Handle Toddler Sleep Regression

Whether you're dealing with 18-month-old sleep regression, 2-year-old sleep regression, or even a 3-year-old sleep regression, these tips can help you and your little one get a good night's rest.

The problem: Your toddler stalls bedtime

Kids this age are learning that they have some power in the world, and they'll seize any opportunity to use it. So, don't be surprised if your mini negotiator says just about anything to stall their bedtime, even if they're about to fall asleep mid-sentence. They may ask for a snack, to use the bathroom, for more stories, or for more cuddles—anything to postpone saying "goodnight."

How to help: Make small tweaks to your child's bedtime routine. You should still stick to the basics—a bath, a story, some cuddling, then lights-out—but let them make small decisions along the way, suggests Jill Spivack, co-creator of the book and DVD The Sleepeasy Solution. Your toddler may be less likely to balk at bedtime if they get to call a few of the shots. (Red or yellow pajamas? Three good-night kisses or four?)

If your toddler cries when you leave their room, explain that it's time to sleep and say that you'll be back to check on them when they're calm, says Brett Kuhn, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Children's Sleep Center, in Omaha, Nebraska.

Return, as promised, but don't stick around. Or try mom Gina Beltrami's clever sleep strategy: After she tucked in her toddler, Sonny, she set a timer for five minutes. "I told him that I'd sit quietly at the foot of his bed until the timer went off, and then he had to rest by himself," says Beltrami, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "Stalling problem solved!"

The problem: Your toddler escapes the bed

With no crib bars to stop them, toddlers often like to savor their newfound freedom by taking 3 a.m. jaunts to your bed.

How to help: Carry your midnight wanderer back to their room every time they bust into yours. If you let them crash with you, you're setting the stage for a never-ending bedtime battle. Consider hanging bells on your doorknob so you can hear your toddler coming; that way, you can walk them back to their room before they climb into your bed and make themselves comfy.

Another way to avoid sleepless nights is to install a baby gate on your child's door. "Explain that it's there to keep them safe since they could get hurt walking around the house by themselves in the dark," says Spivack. Leave their bedroom door open so they don't feel alone.

The problem: Your toddler is scared of sleeping

You know how badly you sleep when you've got a lot of worries on your mind? The same goes for your toddler, though they're panicking about monsters, not the mortgage. "This is the stage when your child's imagination really takes off," says Spivack. "Even if they weren't afraid of the dark before, they may start 'seeing' ghosts and other eerie creatures."

How to help: Respect your child's fears. Let them know you understand how scared they feel, but beware of making their anxiety worse. Using "monster spray," for example, actually suggests that creepy creatures could be hanging out in their room, says Dr. Kuhn. Instead, reassure them that you're always nearby and that monsters don't exist.

Look for ways to convince your toddler that their room is a safe place. Play in their bedroom more often so they associate it with good times, or "camp out" with them there for a night. You could also appoint one of your child's stuffed animals the "watch pet," says Carol Ash, medical director of Sleep for Life in Hillsborough, New Jersey. "I gave my son a big bear that he could prop up on his bed all night to keep an eye on him."

The problem: Your toddler refuses to nap

Toddlers often refuse to snooze during the day—you can blame their newfound sense of independence and changing sleep needs—but most kids aren't truly ready to give up naps for good until around age 5. If you let your child skip theirs, they may be too overtired to sleep well at night.

How to help: Ignore the clock. As kids get older, they might not need to catch their afternoon zzz's on the same old schedule or every day. Instead, look for clues that your toddler is getting tired. Put them down when they get clingy, spacey, hyper, or start rubbing their eyes. Making your toddler's siesta seem like bedtime can help them drift off: Keep their room dark, read a story, or sing a lullaby. But if they absolutely refuse to sleep, encourage them to play quietly in their room and call it "rest time."

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