Your Toddler’s Sleep Regressions Explained

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Toddler Sleep Regressions

Baby and toddler sleep is an ever-shifting, ever-changing thing, isn’t it? Just when you think you’re done with sleep training, done with nap time drama, done with night wakings — you find out you’re not. Something happens (an illness, a bout of teething, a vacation, etc.), and everything falls apart.

And it’s so discouraging. So normal, but so very, very discouraging.

Sometimes, you can trace the blip in your little one’s sleep to an obvious factor (like a recent vacation, for example.) Other times, though, the blip seems to come out of nowhere. In cases like that, you can usually blame a sleep regression.

We’ve written about sleep regressions pretty extensively, so if you’ve been reading The Baby Sleep Site for any length of time, you probably know at least a little bit about when they happen and what they are.

In today’s article, we’re going to put aside the “baby” sleep regressions (the ones that happen at 4 months and at 8, 9, or 10 months) and focus on the two toddler sleep regressions. We’ll look at when the two most common toddler sleep regressions happen, why they occur, what kinds of problems they cause, and how you can cope.

What are Toddler Sleep Regressions, and When Do They Happen?

Most people use the term “sleep regression” to mean that a baby or toddler, who’s been sleeping well, suddenly (often without any warning) begins waking frequently at night and/or refusing to nap during the day. These regressions usually last for a period of time (anywhere from 2 – 6 weeks); then, your baby or toddler’s sleep should return to its normal patterns. (The exception to that rule is the 3/4 month regression; those changes to your baby’s sleep patterns are permanent.)

There are two regressions that happen during toddlerhood: one happens around 18 months, and the other happens right around the 2 year mark.

A Look At the 18 Month Sleep Regression

All sleep regressions can be traced to a baby’s physical and mental development at that particular stage. At 18 months, some of these physical and developmental milestones contribute to the sleep regression:

  • Teething (many toddlers are cutting their 4 canine teeth around 18 months)
  • Separation anxiety (this tends to peak and be at its worst from 10-18 months)
  • Growing sense of independence (18 month olds are learning to exert their own wills, and are likely to resist doing something they don’t want to do — like going to bed)

Truth be told, the 18 month regression is a really, really tough one. Why? Because as we’ve written before, there’s a “discipline factor” involved in this regression that wasn’t part of the earlier sleep regressions:

Being sleep-deprived always makes parenting harder. Add to this the fact that your 18 month old is likely starting to throw temper tantrums and exhibiting plenty of defiant, oppositional behavior, and parenting can seem downright impossible! The stress of dealing with your toddler’s behavior compounds the exhaustion you’re already feeling.

What’s more, these two elements (your toddler’s newfound sleeplessness and your toddler’s oppositional behavior) can end up influencing each other. Your toddler’s willful behavior can lead him to refuse naps or to shriek stubbornly for you each time he wakes at night. And of course, the lack of sleep caused by this regression can make your little one cranky, which leads to more tantrums and temper fits.

For more details about the 18 month sleep regression, check out this article.

A Look At the 2 Year Sleep Regression

The 18 month sleep regression is tough, but the 2 year sleep regression is no picnic, either! There are a number of factors that contribute to your 2 year old’s sleep regression:

  • Awake time is getting longer (this explains why your 2 year old’s sleep schedule may suddenly start falling apart)
  • Separation anxiety may resurface (separation anxiety tends to improve after 18 months, but it may suddenly re-appear when your toddler is about 2)
  • Naps may suddenly stop (we usually advise parents to treat their 2 year old’s naptime resistance as a phase, and to avoid eliminating naps altogether)
  • Big transitions may be happening at home (many 2 year olds are facing transitions like moving to a big kid bed, awaiting the birth of a new sibling, or potty training — and all of these transitions disrupt sleep)
  • Nighttime fears appear at this age (your imaginative 2 year old may suddenly feel afraid of the dark, or of monsters in the closet, and that can affect naps and bedtime)

For more details about the 2 year sleep regression, check out this article.

How to Deal with Toddler Sleep Regressions

There’s no “cure” for sleep regressions, unfortunately. But there are ways you can work to minimize your toddler’s sleeplessness (and your own!):

  • Set clear boundaries and limits with your toddler, especially at nap time and bedtime. This will help nip any sleep-related tantrums in the bud.
  • Don’t rush into altering your toddler’s schedule, or dropping naps. Sleep regressions do pass eventually, and as Nicole has pointed out in past articles, it usually isn’t a good idea to create new, long-term habits for a short-term phase.
  • Do your best to remain consistent, and remind yourself that this phase won’t last forever. ;)
  • Be careful about chalking everything up to this sleep regression (or any other regression phase, for that matter!) If you’ve spent the last year and a half waiting for your “baby” to outgrow her poor sleep habits, you’re dealing with more than just a sleep regression. Instead, it may be time for you to tackle your toddler’s sleep issues head-on.

Need Toddler Sleep Help? Look No Further – The Baby Sleep Site® has you covered!

Need help with your toddler’s sleep? Our team of expert sleep consultants is standing by, ready to create a Personalized Sleep Plan™ for your toddler. The first step is to browse our extensive list of package options and select the one that looks best for your situation.
 
Browse our list of consultation package options here.
 

Once you make your choice and purchase, you will immediately receive an e-mail with your Helpdesk login information. You’ll be able to login and start your Family Sleep History form right away – it’s that simple!
 
 

bss_ebook_5steptoddler_smalPrefer to work on your toddler’s sleep yourself? No problem – why not check out The 5 Step System to Help Your Toddler Sleep, or e-Book all about toddlers? Using the same unique approach and practical tools for success, this e-book helps you and your toddler sleep through the night and enjoy a better daytime schedule.
 
 

Want more information about how personalized help works? Check out our FAQ page here, and get answers. You can also take a tour of the Helpdesk.

How did you cope with the 18 month or 2 year sleep regressions? Share your tried-and-true tips with the rest of us!

Sleep regressions wearing you out? Please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of Toddler Sleep Secrets, our e-Book offering tips to help your toddler sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.

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27 Responses to Your Toddler’s Sleep Regressions Explained

  1. Katrina McCarty says:

    We have definitely hit this with our 19 month old. I have struggled with understanding her sleep and helping do our best to help her achieve the best sleep she can. For last 5 wks we have had some early (4am anyone) wakings, night wakings which I believe are night terrors, and short naps. It was a rough transition to one nap a couple months ago and add in Daylight Savings and we’ve hit a bumpy patch. She takes longer to fall asleep though she’s happy “chatting”. I relied on our consultant from baby sleepsite for reassurance that much of this is normal and we do the best we can. Early bedtimes, slightly longer wind down, as much exercise and fresh air as we can and things will hopefully even out. I have invested in a twilight turtle for help with night terrors as the only thing that calms our daughter is calm light to focus on while we hold her.

  2. Jennifer says:

    My son is only 15 months, but I’m preparing myself for the coming regressions! The first year was really tough, but sleep (thankfully) seemed to finally click one he was a year.

    One tip I’ve heard regarding nighttime fears is to give your toddler a bottle of “monster repellent”. Just mix a few drops of lavender EO with water in a small spray bottle. They can fight off the monsters and the lavender scent might actually help them calm down a bit. I certainly plan on trying it when the time comes!

  3. Liv says:

    My 20 month old seemed to skip the 18 month regression but lately his previously great nap has gone to pot!
    He asks to go for a nap, falls asleep on his own as usual but wakes 40 minutes later hysterical. I’ve been cuddling him back to sleep in my own bed, it’s the only way to lengthen his nap and he definitely needs more than 40 minutes.

    Even more bizarre, when he does get a good nap he still wakes up screaming his head off and is inconsolable for about a half hour after he wakes. He gets lunch before his nap so he’s not hungry, I offer him a drink and a snack and he throws it at me.
    I’m at a loss as to why he’s so miserable when he wakes.

  4. Beth says:

    The 18/19 month regression was soooooo hard! Almost every nap for 5 weeks straight, failed. I kept at it though, every day at the same time, same routine, putting him down. And depending on how loud the crying got, typically left him there for ‘quiet time’, or rather ‘alone time’, for an hour. It was super hard. Nighttime seemed to do okay with only a few night wakings. He cut in all 4 canine teeth during this time, and we also survived a few bouts of cooties as well. He just turned 20 months and he’s finally napping again. Whew! I’m exhausted! That was a long bout. I can only hope that the 2 year one isn’t as bad…

  5. Amy says:

    Oh my goodness…tomorrow marks the second week that my 18 mo son has screamed when I put him down for a nap. I’ve tried all kinds of things to no avail. We were doing so well with sleeping (finally) and now this! I am really trying hard not to create bad habits while getting through this “phase”, but it’s hard. We always go through the same routine for naps and I put him in his crib, but he screams and carries on until I can’t take it and I rock him to sleep. I put him back in his crib to have him either wake upon laying him down or 15-30 minutes later! The only way to get him to stay asleep is to lay with him in our bed, but I don’t want this to go on forever!!! Glad to know I’m not alone in this, but it is so frustrating and exhausting! Thank you so much for everything!

  6. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Katrina McCarty — thanks so much for sharing the details of your experience! These are hugely helpful to moms and dads who are going through the same thing you are. Thanks, too, for the kind words about your experience with one of our Baby Sleep Site™ consultants :) So glad to hear that your consultant was able to help you through this season!

    @ Jennifer — what a cute idea! Nice tip. Thanks for sharing. :)

    @ Liv — I have no definitive answers, but I can tell you that this was true for my oldest son, too. From about 18 months until he was probably 3, he woke up from every nap (and most mornings, too) cranky and fussing (sometimes screaming!) It was so frustrating for my husband and I. We used to DREAD the moments when he’d wake up!

    So sorry you’re going through this, Liv. :( My oldest eventually outgrew this bizarre behavior, but I remember it well. Hang in there! And if you do eventually uncover a reason for it, or a solution, let us know!

  7. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Beth — so glad to hear you survived! Yes, the 18 month one can be so rough. 18 months can be rough in general, in my opinion, but throw a sleep regression in there, and yikes! Good for you, Beth, for sticking to your routine and toughing it out. Not easy (as you point out) but worth it, once they’re sleeping well again.

    Thanks for commenting, Beth!

    @ Amy — definitely, definitely not alone. :) This is so common! Did you catch Beth’s comment, right above yours? She mentions that it took her little one 5 weeks to get past the regression — no fun! So you may have a few more rough weeks ahead of you. Just do the best you can to stay consistent, and eventually, you’ll be on the other side of this thing.

    Hang in there, Amy! You can do it!

  8. Kristie N says:

    Thanks for the article! I feel like we went through a mild 18 month sleep regression, but got through. My toddler is now 20 months old, and in preparation for the 2 year sleep regression what should I keep in mind regarding awake times? Do I gradually extend her wake times and see if that helps or just stay the course and see if it passes? Thank you in advance!

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I found introducing an audio story very helpful at about 2 years as both my boys would resist nap time but would happily lay on their bed to listen to a story. Most often they would then fall asleep and stay asleep for up to 2 hours, even if they didn’t sleep they would be refreshed. Now at 6 and 4 they still have a rest or sleep whenever they are not at school.

  10. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Kristie N — glad you found the article helpful! As for ways to prepare for the 2 year regression — I definitely wouldn’t make any changes to your daughter’s schedule yet. You never know; she might sail past the 2 year mark with no issues at all!

    Instead, I’d suggest watching for her cues, and following her lead. If you notice that she’s wide awake after you put her to bed, maybe try bumping bedtime back 15 minutes or so. Or if you notice her naps going a little haywire in the next few months, then make some minor adjustments to her napping schedule. But let her behavior guide any changes you make. Make sense?

    Also, don’t rush into any big changes (i.e. if she starts resisting her afternoon nap, don’t drop it.)

    Thanks for commenting, Kristie! And check back in to let us know how it’s going in the next few months. :)

  11. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Elizabeth — yes to the audio stories! We do those at my house, too (although we mainly listen to them when my boys are coloring, or playing with play dough or puzzles.) I love the idea of using them as a rest time tool!

    Excellent suggestion, Elizabeth — thanks for making it! :)

  12. Amy says:

    Thanks again so much for the comments and the responses to the comments! After two weeks and two days of a screaming 18 mos old at nap time, I decided to try playing some music. It took about a half hour, but he finally fell asleep! He was sitting up and hunched over so I went in and laid him down, but he finally napped on his own and in his own bed! I’m not holding my breath for tomorrow, but today I’m celebrating a small victory! Thanks again everyone for your support and suggestions!

  13. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Amy — awesome! So glad the comments inspired you to try something new, and (more importantly) that it worked!!

    Thanks for the update, Amy! Fingers crossed that this is the start of easier naps from here on out. :)

  14. larmlarm55 says:

    My daughter is now 14 months old and has been sleeping well in the past 4-5 months (sleeping from 9pm to 7am with occasional night wakings which she could fall back to sleep on her own), suddenly has some sleep regression in the recent 2 weeks. The major change recently was that we have a vacation 2 weeks before (no sleep problem at all while on trip!) and my helper (who is sleeping in the same room with my daughter)has a trip back to philiphine too during that time. Now when all things get back to normal, my daughter starts to have a sleep regression — she starts to wake up several times and could not settle on her own. We thought to re-train my daughter again and let her cry out during her night waking but she would keep on shouting (yes, not crying!!) for more than an hour! Our whole family really have a hard time! Any advise for me?

  15. Emily DeJeu says:

    @larmlarm55 — re-training can be a good idea, but if CIO is disturbing the family, there are quieter, gentler training techniques you can try. For an explanation of the different sleep training techniques you can use in this situation, check out our free guide: http://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-sleep-through-night-free-ebook/ You’ll find some tips in there to help.

    Overall, I think you’re on the right track. You want to treat this as a phase, and to continue on as normally as you can until it’s passed.

    Best of luck to you! And thanks for commenting :)

  16. Lisa says:

    We dealt with the 18 month sleep regression by co-sleeping. I just couldn’t listen to my little boy scream for hours and hours (tried it once, won’t do it again). My job requires me to be on call so I wasn’t willing to give up more nights of sleep to the toddler. The rule we stuck with was he had to go to bed on his own at his normal bedtime. Then if he woke up in the middle of the night (which for about 3 or 4 weeks was every night), I brought him to bed with hubby and I. He slept very well with us until morning. I think the sleep regression might be over (fingers crossed) as he has slept through the night in his own bed for the last 4 nights in a row. I was feeling guilty about co-sleeping, so many people frown upon it. But my mom said it wouldn’t last forever and to do what felt right for us.

  17. larmlarm55 says:

    Dear Emily, thanks for your advise. Currently, I am trying co-sleeping and my girl seems to calm down…but at the same time, she seems not sleepy at all!? Cos she would smile and try to play with me! I am actually a bit guilty and distressed with co-sleeping as my sister told me that her son, who is now 9 yr old, is still sleeping with her. So I felt a bit frustrated and not sure what I am doing is right or not. I read from your website that the 18-month sleep regression can be due to the baby learning new things/developmental milestone and teething, and it so happens that my daughter is trying to learn to talk and have teething problem too, but she is only 14-month old, can it be possible too? Anyway, I hope that the current issue is just a phase and can go soon!

  18. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Lisa — “But my mom said it wouldn’t last forever and to do what felt right for us.” YES. Your mom gives good advice :) While it’s a good idea to educate yourself about healthy sleep habits, and to avoid helping your baby develop bad sleep habits, it’s also good to cut yourself a break when you need to. ;)

    It sounds like co-sleeping was a good, temporary solution that worked well for your unique situation. Glad you were able to trust your gut, and glad that you survived the 18 month sleep regression!

    Thanks for commenting, Lisa. :)

  19. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ larmlarm55 — Don’t worry too much about the co-sleeping. Provided you don’t make it a long-term thing, it’s likely you’ll be able to transition away from that once this regression phase has passed (see Lisa’s comment above.)

    If your daughter has been sleeping well up to this point, then it’s likely this is just a phase, and that it’ll pass eventually. I know this can be tough, but do your best to stick it out.

    Thanks for commenting!

  20. D. McCarthy says:

    So I have a soon to be 21 month old who for the last week as been taking very short naps and only sleeping for 10 hours tops at night. So we have not long enough nights and horrible naps. Her best naps were only 1.5 hours but she would do over an hour and around 10.5/11 at night and was happy. She also tries every stall tactic in the book before each bedtime. So it’s classic regression but which one is it? Late 18 or early 24? She is not cutting any teeth but the molars are starting to fill in best we can tell. It’s been a week and I am guessing we have another 2 to go given her last regressions. So what do we think is going on?

  21. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ D. McCarthy — good questions! Here’s something I’m wondering…is she learning anything new lately? Has she started making gains in her speech, or in her mobility? That may help clue us in to exactly what’s going on.

  22. chantel says:

    Please help my baby is 20 months and his normal bed time was 7.30 and he used to sleep through since the weekend he is waking up twice and crying to leave his cot – I sooth him and he goes back to sleep – last night was a bit worst he refused bed time went to sleep after 9 then wake between 12 and 1 :( and I don’t want to give in and take him to sleep with me as i am scared he might get into that routine of my bed – what do i do?

  23. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ chantel — I’m so sorry you’re struggling through this! But take heart — this is very, very normal behavior for a young toddler. In terms of what to do — our general recommendation to parents is to keep doing what you normally do. Bringing him into bed with you once or twice probably wouldn’t cause big problems, but you’re right in thinking that if you did it often enough, it’s probably become a habit (and it sound like that’s a habit you don’t want him to develop!)

    Instead, look for other ways to comfort him while leaving him in his crib. You can go in and pat him/shush him when he cries, for example. In general, you just have to survive and get through these regression phases. They’re no fun at all when they’re happening, but they’re usually over in a few weeks.

    Hang in there, Chantel! And let us know how he’s progressing.

  24. Maureen says:

    My 24 month old son out of the blue started to scream and cry when I put him down for naps and bedtime. He has always been a great sleeper and self soother. He would always just lay in his crib and eventually fall asleep. I followed the Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child book. My son took to the schedule and routines the book suggested beautifully. Then one night he just screamed and cried when I walked out of the room and I would go back in and comfort him but it would start all over again as soon as I would try and leave. It went on for more then an hour so I gave in and sat in his room till he fell asleep. He’s now 26 months old and now I sit in the hallway in front of his room with his door open but I am afraid that I created a habit now. I don’t know if it is separation anxiety or if he’s testing me. I do not want to sit in the hallway anymore but I’m afraid that if I try and leave him to cry I will make matters worse especially if it is separation anxiety. Please help!

  25. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Maureen — this sounds like a classic 2 year sleep regression. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to do except get through it! :( To determine if it’s true separation anxiety, think about this — are there other times when you leave him during the day (i.e. at a babysitter, at daycare, etc.)? If so, how does he handle those transitions?

    If it is separation anxiety, then the best thing you can do, in my experience, is to treat it lightly. If you seem worried or concerned, then it reinforces to your son that he has reason to be fearful and upset. There’s nothing wrong with checking in on him when he cries, of course, but try keeping your interactions short: give him a quick hug, and remind him that you’re right around the corner and will see him first thing in the morning. I’d suggest trying to break the sitting-outside-his-door pattern, since (as you point out) it’s likely become a habit.

    Thanks for reaching out, Maureen! And keep us posted on how your little guy does.

  26. Lauren says:

    I’m in the same boat as a lot of the other comments. Used to have a good sleeper – now we are down to 10 hrs total in 24 hrs almost out of the blue. Last night he had 7 hours night sleep and only 1.5 hour nap today. I am now sitting in his room until he falls asleep, but like other posters, this is not sustainable. I have no time to myself as he has been waking early, shortened naps, and spending a long time sitting in his room. I also have a five year old who needs my attention too! I think my sitting in the room has exacerbated the problem b.c I am not there when he wakes up. He has woken every night the past 3 weeks. We are all worn out! But I feel guilty when he cries. I don’t know if something is scary to him b.c he isn’t super verbal yet and I don’t know if its seperation anxiety. I don’t want to ignore those things if that is what is going on.

  27. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Lauren — so sorry you’re struggling through this right now :( No fun at all!

    I think you’re probably right in your guess that staying in the room with him is exacerbating the problem. And it may be setting him up to expect that long-term (something that you’re probably not interested in doing!)

    Maybe you could do a check-and-console kind of thing? Go in every so often, pat him and comfort him for a minute or two, and then leave? That might be a way to offer comfort, and to let him know that you’re present and available, without creating any long-term habits. Just a thought. :)

    Keep us posted on how this goes, Lauren! Good luck to you — and thanks for commenting!