How to Deal With Toddler Sleep Regressions

Sleep struggles are a normal part of childhood development, but there are ways to make them easier for everyone. Here's how.

Even if you happen to have a baby that sleeps through the night (yes, those magical creatures do exist, I'm told!), as they get older, they will most likely go through some changes in their sleep patterns. For instance, many babies and toddlers experience sleep regressions as they move through big changes in their development.

Sometime around their second birthday, many toddlers will experience a sleep regression characterized by a change in snoozing habits. Keep reading to learn more about sleep regression ages, causes, and solutions.

What Are Toddler Sleep Regressions?

A "sleep regression" is when a toddler struggles with their positive sleep habits—though it's not so much a "regression" as a regular part of child development (some might even call it a "progression!").

A toddler sleep regression might look like 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.

Common Toddler Sleep Issues (and How To Handle Them)

Toddler sleep regressions can occur at any time. 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.

4 Common Toddler Sleep Issues

You may have noticed your child dealing with one—or all!—of these familiar toddler sleep issues in your own home:

  • Doing anything they can to stall bedtime
  • Escaping from their bed
  • Feeling scared at night
  • Downright refusing nap time

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."

The solution: Tweak your bedtime routine

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. (Think: Red or yellow pajamas? Three goodnight 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.

The solution: Back to bed they go

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 grocery bill. "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."

The solution: Recognize their fears

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 4 or 5. If you let your child skip theirs, they may be too overtired to sleep well at night.

The solution: Follow your child's cues

It might be a challenge, but 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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