You made it through the infant stage and you are sailing into toddlerhood… Then WHAM – your toddler is all of a sudden waking up all night long again like a newborn! Likely he or she is also fighting naps, bringing the bedtime drama and maybe some early morning wake ups thrown in for added fun! In the middle of the night, and probably during the day while your eyes are burning, you are up wondering what the heck is going on! As a child sleep consultant, I receive a lot of emails at 3 am asking “why is my toddler up all night long?” The answer: the dreaded 18-month sleep regression! This regression can hit anywhere between 15-24 months, but for most toddlers, it starts right around the 18-month mark.
On the bright side, if your toddler previously had healthy sleep habits, they’ll likely go back to their original sleeping patterns within a few challenging days or weeks. Yay!
BUT if your toddler hadn’t quite mastered sleeping independently and self-soothing or if you get caught in a bad pattern through the 18-month sleep regression, you will need to help them learn healthy sleep habits with some sort of sleep coaching.
First, let’s explore what’s going on behind the scenes with the 18-Month Sleep Regression. Then I’ll share my top seven tips on how to survive the regression with minimal gray hairs popping up!
WHAT IS A SLEEP REGRESSION?
When a child is sleeping well and then begins to wake frequently at night or begin to fight naps or refuse them, chances are your child may have hit a sleep regression. They can last a short while (a few days to a couple weeks) or your child may never fully go back to their previous habits.
The first three regressions all coincide with standard timing for nap transitions. Around 4 months, babies transition from 4 naps to 3; around 8 months, babies transition from 3 naps to 2; and around 18 months, toddlers transition from 2 naps to 1.
Oftentimes, our babies are also working on major skills in each of these time frames which can also play into the regression. Sleep regressions are actually our babies progressing! They are maturing and developing, which is AMAZING, yet it can wreak major havoc on your child’s slumber.
When your little one’s sleep needs have changed and their sleep schedule hasn’t been adjusted, it can result in an overtired child. This results in a downward spiral for both day and night sleep.
WHAT CAUSES THE 18-MONTH SLEEP REGRESSION?
- Teething – around this time, toddlers are cutting their first molars and the 4 canine teeth. This can lead to discomfort which can disrupt sleep. Keep in mind that teething doesn’t last weeks and weeks on end and it can play into sleep challenges, but won’t usually be the sole contributing factor to sleep challenges.
- Language explosion – your toddler likely is beginning to have A LOT to say!
Mental / Emotion
- Separation anxiety: around 18 months there can be another peak of separation anxiety. This can result in your toddler not wanting to be away from you. This can affect your child’s willingness to settling into naps peacefully and cause night wakings. It is normal for children to have nighttime arousals that happen when they transitioning between sleep cycles. If you add in separation anxiety, your toddler may be very upset in the middle of the night that you aren’t there with them.
- Testing boundaries – your toddler’s “NO” game is probably pretty strong at this point! Toddlers begin testing boundaries and start trying to wear the Mommy and Daddy pants. They are really just testing their limits and seeing what they can and cannot do. “If I shriek like a spider monkey what will happen?” “I wonder if I can sleep with Mommy and Daddy tonight?” “If I throw my lovey out, what will Mommy do?”
Around 18 months is normally when most toddlers are transitioning from two naps down to one nap. This isn’t an easy transition for toddlers to go all day with one nap. If you transition too quickly, it can cause overtiredness, which can cause what I call the overtired downward spiral. This includes difficulty settling in at bedtime, frequent night wakings, early morning wake ups and difficulty settling into naps!
Resisting sleep due to the factors that are playing into the 18-month sleep regression, play into your toddler being overtired. If you couple that with the overtired downward spiral from a nap transition too, it is no wonder that the 18-month sleep regression can be quite a doozy for parents! Here’s what you do…
TOP SEVEN SURVIVAL TIPS FOR THE 18-MONTH SLEEP REGRESSION:
- Maintain or develop a consistent, connecting sleepytime routine – children love routine, consistency and to know what is coming next. It makes them feel safe. Toddlers also crave connection, especially those that are experiencing separation anxiety. A consistent bedtime routine, with extra snuggles, hugs and kisses can help make the transition to sleeping independently a little easier for your child.
- Introduce a lovey, if you haven’t already. Loveys can be a great source of comfort for toddlers when they are separated from their parents during sleep times. Tuck in the lovey with them for all sleep and reinforce that they always have their lovey there to hug.
- Shift bedtimes If your child is overtired, don’t be afraid of an early bedtime. It doesn’t mean that your child will wake earlier in the morning – actually it can be quite the opposite. This will help your child to become better rested and help put the kibosh on the overtired downward spiral.
- Check your reactions to your child’s protests. If you overreact to your child’s sleep protest, it can reinforce the behavior and prolong the regression. Stay calm, confident and reassuring, yet firm in the way you respond to the protests. In an age appropriate manner, explain to your child why sleep is so important. Use this message consistently to combat the bedtime battle. I say to my boys “Sleep makes our bodies feel good and it helps our family to have more fun!!” Now is the time that you really want to set the tone for sleeping and how important it is for your family.
- Set limits and enforce boundaries. Maybe one extra song or cuddle or one extra kiss and hug, but don’t get into old or new habits that you don’t want to have to break in the future. I’m referring to sleep associations, like co-sleeping, middle of the night feeds, rocking to sleep, etc. If you don’t want to start doing something in the long term, don’t bring it back during the sleep regression. If your toddler is testing boundaries and throwing a tantrum at bedtime or at nap time, it’s key that you stand firm and continue to enforce sleep time boundaries and limits.
- Continue to offer naps and if your little love doesn’t settle in, offer an early bedtime to ward off the overtired downward spiral.
- Fall back on sleep coaching. If your child doesn’t adjust back to their normal, healthy sleep habits within a few weeks, it may be time to go back to sleep training methods you have used in the past. It is usually much easier for toddlers to get back to their healthy sleep habits than when they were initially learning.
Keep in mind – this is temporary. As long as your little one has a solid sleep foundation AND you follow the tips above. If you do need help, let me know! I help families get back on track after sleep regressions and can help you! If you want to get an idea of what it is like to work with me, book a 20-minute free intro call or check out my reviews on Facebook!