Toddler Sleep Regression (aka Toddler Torture)

Why Does My 2 year Old Not Sleep?

Man, isn’t this a common question. They don’t call them the “terrible two’s” for nothing. When an infant reaches toddlerhood, there’s a whole new wave of challenges to deal with, including toddler sleep regression.

Kids in the 18 to 24-month range often go through a period of change in which their sleeping patterns get funky. Here is a helpful parents’ guide complete with tips for navigating this tricky time in a toddler’s life.

What is a sleep regression?

A sleep regression is a very obnoxious period of time where your baby (or child), who had been sleeping normally and consistently on a schedule, suddenly stops sleeping. (I jest, not entirely, but it might feel like it). But basically, all sleep patterns known to the family disappear, and your child acts as though he never napped or went to bed on his own.

Some examples of things a child might do during a sleep regression:

  • waking up extraordinarily early in the morning for no reason
  • refusing to go to bed on time, or at all
  • refusing to follow previously established bedtime routine (like going to bed on his own in his crib without a parent rocking him to sleep)
  • skipping naps, despite the fact that he desperately needs them
  • waking up early from naps
  • night waking to nurse a lot more than usual, or just to play
  • sleep troubles without any explanation whatsoever

What causes sleep problems in toddlers?

While babies get off their sleep schedule, parents may be able to pinpoint the cause of the behavior change. Maybe a day trip or a vacation threw off their sleeping routine or perhaps they’re teething. Most moms and dads can get their baby back into a napping and sleeping routine quickly.

But sleep regressions are something different. They aren’t generally associated with a break in the usual schedule. Toddler sleep regression is a new situation that crops up just when parents thought everything was fine and dandy.

Sleep regressions SUCK. When toddlers don’t sleep, no one sleeps. We all know that when toddlers wake up in the middle of the night, it throws everyone’s schedule off balance. Parents have trouble getting to work on time, and kids throw a tantrum at naptime because they’re too tired to sleep (yes that’s a thing). Sleep regression throws a wrench in the system and can leave everyone feeling irritable and fatigued. So, what are the primary causes of this toddler phenomenon?

Reasons for Sleep Regression in Toddlerhood

Most toddlers go through this phase two times; once around 18 months old and another around 2 years old. (Babies go through a big one around 8 months too). Sleep regression, whether in babies or toddlers, is linked to mental and physical development. There are some actual documented physical changes that occur at about 18 months that are usually the culprit for a sleep regression. So in a way, this torturous behavior is totally normal and even a good sign that he or she is growing naturally.

Imagine that, all of a sudden, one day your brain or your fingers or arms or legs or eyes can do something new and completely different. This is incredibly stimulating! Combined with a brain that is developing at a millions miles on hour, it is no wonder that children at this age struggle to sleep like normal.

Other Reasons Sleep Might Be A Struggle

One reason that a child may switch up their sleeping patterns is out of a need to be more independent. At 18 months old, they are no longer a baby, but they still need to rely on their parents for most things. There is a push and pull deep inside the child to do things on his own, but also to run to mom and dad for help. This can make bedtime and sleeping a horrible mess as the child works through these very strong and visceral feelings inside of himself.

Changes can wreak havoc on a little one’s sleep schedule. Lots of two-year olds are starting to go on more trips outside, visiting friends, attending daycare, or making big changes at home. Moving to a big-kid potty or bed can cause disrupted sleep because they’re meaningful transitions. Children may be too anxious, excited, or stubborn to sleep. With everything that’s changing, the one thing that can save their oppositional attitude is controlling their bedtime behavior.

Parents should keep in mind that the two-year mark is prime time for kids to start having nighttime fears or bad dreams. Talk of monsters under the bed and a fear of the dark can begin to surface, putting a halt to naptime and bedtime.

toddler sleep regression

Another culprit behind sleep regression is separation anxiety. In the months leading up to the 18-month mark, children tend to get very clingy, especially towards their mothers. While they explore this new realm of independence, they may find it a struggle to deal with. The anxiety induced by this separation can lead to broken sleeping patterns.

Teething is another reason for this kind of behavior. By 18 months of age, children are starting to get their canine teeth. Growing new teeth can be painful, which results in interrupted sleep and waking mom and dad up during the night.

All of these reasons for sleep regression make sense and can even be good things, but the consequence of no rest can drive some parents up the wall.

Working Through Sleep Regressions

There’s no tried and true cure for this phenomenon, but parents have become skilled experts in fighting this problem. First of all, successful parents set up a naptime and bedtime routine and stick to it. There can’t be any exceptions to these rules or else kids won’t learn that those are the times they need to go to sleep. Staying consistent is key, even though it may not always be possible.

Parents shouldn’t punish themselves if their routines and discipline aren’t working. While they do their best to stay consistent, it’s not always going to work out perfect. Sometimes, it’s best to just ride the wave for a few weeks until things simmer down. The good news about sleep regression is that it typically lasts two to six weeks.

Considerations for Parents

Finally, mom and dad should be aware that in some cases, sleep regression can become a full-blown habit. Basically, if the child’s disrupted sleep isn’t because of the reasons mentioned above, then it’s probably not a sleep regression phase, but a habit that they’ve developed. It’s similar to when a person gets in the habit of oversleeping or going to bed late.

Yet, when looking at all that a two-year-old needs to process each day, it makes sense that they’re having trouble getting to bed or staying asleep. They’re learning how to read body language and expressions, how to communicate their needs and express themselves, fine motor skills, object permanence, and more. Yes, they have a lot on their plate, but so do parents. Therefore, trying to stick to a consistent naptime and bedtime schedule will be the best bet.

Mom and dad should stick it out for the two to six weeks that the patterns last. However, if it becomes a long-standing habit, consider further action. Some toddlers naturally get out of their sleep regression habits, but it’s more common that parents need to intervene. Just be sure to rule out the usual reasons such as growing, mental development, sickness, and vacation before turning to a doctor.

Before you go, check out another article from one of our wonderful Mom Advice Line contributors:

Reply