Something about the term “sleep regression” still makes my skin crawl, even as a sleep consultant. Although we often hear about baby sleep regressions, toddler sleep regressions are just as real, and honestly, sometimes more challenging!
Now, if you Google “toddler sleep regressions,” you’re likely going to see blog posts galore about the 18 month regression and the 24 month regression, or 2 year regression.
And while some toddlers may hit a sleep regression at 18 months and/or 24 months, it’s really not as dependent on age as it is development.
Just as some babies hit sleep regressions as they learn to crawl, pull to stand, or walk, some toddlers’ sleep regresses as they learn to talk.
And while the first language burst is generally around 18 months for many toddlers, and another big language burst often occurs around 2 years old, sometimes that burst comes sooner, and sometimes that burst comes later. Which is why I hesitate to label these as the “18 month regression” and “24 month regression”…every child is different!
So let’s talk all about those pesky toddler sleep regressions, why they’re happening, what they might look like, and how we can get your toddler’s sleep back on track.
What is a sleep regression?
A sleep regression is when your child’s usual sleep habits change (for the worse), and this change lasts beyond a few nights.
For example, if you have a toddler who is able to fall asleep and stay asleep in their own crib independently, yet is now struggling to fall and/or stay asleep (for naps and/or nights), they may be experiencing a sleep regression.
Do all toddlers have sleep regressions?
Not necessarily! Some toddlers may only experience a sleep regression around 18 months old, some toddlers may only experience a regression around 24 months/2 years old, some may regress at both times, and other toddlers will never experience these sleep regressions!
And fyi, it’s not based on how well you sleep trained them, it just happens for some!
My now 21 month old experienced a little sleep regression around 15 months old, that lasted around a week, and it was directly paired with using several more words. It was her version of the 18 month sleep regression, but it was according to her development, not the textbook age.
Keep reading to see what that looked like and how we responded!
Why a sleep regression at 18 months and 24 months/2 years old?
Cause and Effect
I’ve already mentioned that most toddlers experience language bursts around 18 months and 2 years old, so let’s dig in even more. Around 18 months, especially (remember, sometimes this might be earlier, sometimes later!), little ones start to better understand cause-and-effect.
- I say, “Ow,” and mom picks me up and gives me a kiss.
- I cry when my two bedtime books are done, so dad reads two more.
- I sign and say, “More,” and get another serving of blueberries.
- I do a silly dance and they clap and laugh, so I keep dancing.
- I say, “Water,” after they’ve left my room for the night and they come back with a sippy cup.
This is a really fun part of development, because our little ones’ personalities start shining so much more, and it is so important that they learn that their actions and words make an impact. Now, is it a problem for dad to read two more stories one night? Or for mom to come back and give a kiss? NO!
But do you also see where it can start getting tricky and further impact nap time or bedtime?
It starts getting fuzzy when the next night we only read two stories, but they want two more. Or the next night they want one more kiss, then a drink of water, then a hug from dada, and then they want you to stay until they fall asleep.
Sometimes it’s just a one off night (we certainly have them!), and that’s fine! We’re dealing with real human beings here. But when it becomes a pattern and/or a new expectation is when it gets sticky.
To add to all of this, your 18 month old has probably started to exercise the “No” muscle, which comes out all day every day. (If they haven’t yet, you just get ready!) So they may say, “No,” when it’s time to brush their teeth, or change their diaper, or get their jammies on. They may say, “No,” as you’re laying them down.
They’re starting to make sense of what that word means and what you’re going to do about it!
So just like our toddlers learn that we’ll cuddle them when they’re sad, they’ll also learn that we’ll take their toy away if they hit their sibling with it. They’ll learn that we’ll read to them when they bring us a book and plop in our laps, and they’ll also learn that if they throw a tantrum for a cookie, they’re not going to get one.
And this is all GOOD! Our toddlers need our comfort, our support, and our loving boundaries. Being consistent helps our kids feel safe because they can predict what will happen next.
So what about the 24 month/2 year regression, you may ask? It’s basically the same thing! But now rather than single words, we likely have multiple word sentences, plus our toddlers are seeking even more independence and determination is at an all-time high. So it’s like cause-and-effect, part two.
In addition to establishing a sense of cause-and-effect, with all of this new learning often comes some separation anxiety, as well. It’s as if the excitement of this new found independence also results in some separation anxiety, because they’re still so little. They’re still unsure of so many things, and all that new learning can be exhausting!
So try to carve out some extra time during the day to have really intentional one-on-one time to fill those little love tanks.
In my experience, molars are the worst part of teething. But just like with everything else, no two kids’ experience will look alike!
My now 21 month old got two molars right around the same time as that sleep regression at 15 months, and she had a few really hard nights. She fell asleep just fine, but come 1-2 am, she was not okay. Sweet girls needed some extra love!
Her other two molars, however? We had no idea that they came through until we were at the pediatrician’s office and she mentioned they were there. Same kiddo, different molars, totally different sleep outcomes!
For my almost 4 year old, on the other hand, her first two molars came in, no problem! Those last two, though? We thought the poor girl had an ear infection because she kept pointing to her ear and saying, “Ow.” So we took her to the pediatrician to learn that her ears were clear, but those molars were coming through! Her sleep thankfully wasn’t interrupted, but she was definitely in physical pain throughout the day.
Early Crib to Bed Transition
If you’ve recently transitioned your toddler to an open bed, but they’re under the age of 3, this could also be why you’re seeing a sleep regression! When at all possible, I recommend parents keep their little ones in a crib until as close to the age of three as possible (or even longer!).
What do the 18 month and 24 month/2 year old sleep regressions look like?
How toddler sleep regressions play out often looks different from child to child, and may even look different regression to regression. But you’ll likely see one or all of the following:
- Bedtime protests
- Night wakings
- Nap time protests
For my youngest, her “18 month regression” happened at 15 months old, when she was acquiring what seemed like 10 new words a day, and it all came out at nap and bedtime. Rather than giggling as we got her into her sleep sack, she fought it. And rather than tucking her head into our shoulder as we sang our sleep song, she would say (or shout), “Noooooo!”
And rather than laying down quietly and just drifting off into sleep, she would fuss or cry for 2-5 minutes before falling asleep, calling for Mama, Dada, books, water, etc. But once she was asleep, that was that! She still slept well for her naps and overnight.
We did NOT change anything about her routines and her schedule, because I was sure this was her learning what would happen if she protested sleep, and it only took a week or two for her to learn that sleep was still the expectation and would happen. “18 month” sleep regression over! (Keep reading to learn how to know if it is time for a schedule change.)
How long do the 18 month and 24 month sleep regression last?
I have found that both baby and toddler sleep regressions typically last around 1-2 weeks.
So if your toddler’s sleep changes all of a sudden and you can connect it to a developmental milestone (remember, they don’t have to be exactly 18 months or 24 months old!), try to hang tight! Don’t go making several schedule or routine adjustments, because it may just be a matter of time and consistency, and things will get right back on track.
If it’s been over two weeks of sleep being off and you’ve remained pretty consistent, yet things are still haywire, there’s probably something else going on, so we need to keep digging…
What can you do to get your toddler’s sleep back on track after a regression?
Before you go making any changes, first WAIT! Your toddler may just be having an off day or night, because it happens time to time. Or if they’ve been picking up more language lately and this has been going on for a handful of days, I still want you to hang tight and remain consistent with your schedule and routines, because this could all “blow over” in a week or two.
What we DON’T want to do is go changing everything at once, because this sleep regression will likely pass with time and without making any changes.
So remain consistent with how you’ve approached their sleep before (ie only two books, you leave the room, last sip of water before lights are out, etc.), and you’ll likely get back on track!
Additionally, if they’re constantly asking for water before you lay them down, add a sip of water right into your routine after books! Or if they’re requesting extra hugs and kisses, make a big deal about the goodnight hugs and smooches, even make it silly, so it’s right there in the routine, and predictable.
But if your goal is that same independent sleep they had before, don’t continue to go back again and again and again, fulfilling every request, because your toddler will learn to keep making those requests and sleep will remain a challenge.
Leave and Check
For my oldest, when she had her toddler sleep regressions, it all came out at bedtime; not with “No’s,” like my youngest, but with requests. Her “18 month regression” (I don’t remember exactly when it was) looked like calling out for water, more hugs, more kisses, etc.
And we had no idea sleep regressions were a thing – we just thought she was thirsty and needed more snuggles! So we gave them to her. But each time we left again, she got progressively more and more upset, and we ended up having to help her to sleep quite a bit.
Until a week or two later, we realized this was becoming a pattern we didn’t want to get stuck in again, so we went back to the basics and used the Leave and Check strategy until she was back to her independent sleeping self. Leave and Check is my go-to for any sleep “upkeep” you have to do after regressions, traveling, sickness, etc.
A general rule of thumb when it comes to independent sleep is that it should take babies and toddlers around 5-10 minutes to fall asleep at nap time and bedtime. So if you’re little one starts taking longer than 10 minutes to fall asleep and you’ve waited the two weeks for the sleep regression to pass, or you’ve ruled out a sleep regression, it’s likely time for a schedule change to build up some sleep pressure to be able to both fall asleep more quickly and to also stay asleep through the night.
When it comes to nap time or bedtime, I generally start by pushing it back by 15 minutes, potentially 30, if necessary. When aiming for a 7-7 schedule with toddlers, I try not to push nap time any later than 1 pm and I try not to push bedtime any later than 8:00 pm (yes, that might mean you start capping your toddler’s naps!).
Additionally, many toddlers, especially as we near 24 months and older, often need a solid 5 hours between when they wake up from their nap and go to bed; some may even need 5.5 hours! We want to make sure they actually have enough sleep pressure to help them fall asleep and stay asleep.
The 18 month regression and the 24 month/2 year old regression can be real, but happen at different times for different toddlers. Remember that this is a natural part of your child’s development, it is good, and you get the amazing opportunity to help guide them through this new learning.
Remain consistent and your toddler’s sleep will get back on track! And if it’s been at least two weeks, you’ve “tried all the things”, and something’s just not clicking, that’s where I come in. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help!