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Here’s a common situation. You have a solid sleep routine for your toddler and he’s been sleeping like a champ for many months (or years). And then one day- BOOM! Everything goes down the toilet. Suddenly, your toddler is:
- delaying bedtime;
- throwing massive tantrums in his crib;
- refusing to go to sleep, and
- possibly even waking up in the middle of the night.
It can be incredibly disheartening- and exhausting- when your sleep-loving toddler suddenly fights bedtime, tooth and nail.
If any of this sounds familiar, it probably means your little one is going through a toddler sleep regression. And boy, are those frustrating and confusing for parents! Understanding the common culprits behind these regressions can help you navigate these phases more effectively and nip the regression in the bud.
In this blog post, I delve into the world of toddler sleep regressions. I’ll explain what they are, why they happen, and most importantly, how to address them with minimal disruption to your child’s sleep patterns.
What is a toddler sleep regression?
A toddler sleep regression refers to periods when a child’s sleep patterns temporarily and suddenly change, leading to disrupted sleep. They usually cause sudden disruptions and power struggles during bedtime, nighttime and naptime that didn’t previously exist.
Toddler sleep regressions usually occur around specific ages or developmental milestones. For example, there are very well-known regressions that happen around the 18 month mark as well as the 2 year mark. These regressions can last for a few days to several weeks, affecting both naptime and nighttime sleep.
Now, before I delve into the ins and outs of navigating a toddler sleep regression, I want to make a VERY important note about what a sleep regression IS and what it ISN’T.
A true sleep regression takes place when your child was previously a good sleeper and, suddenly, their sleep took a huge backwards step. But if a toddler’s sleep was already problematic to begin with, this might not be a sleep regression at all. Rather, we might be looking at a not-so-great sleep situation that simply worsened.
For example, a mom in the My Sleeping Baby Facebook community asked about her 2 year old toddler who had always woken up once at night for a bottle. And suddenly, he began waking up 2-3 times a night! This is a perfect example of a toddler who likely isn’t going through a regression. He clearly wasn’t a great sleeper to begin with. And in these situations, it’s SO common for things to go from bad to worse.
The good news is that the advice I provide in this blog post is equally helpful if your toddler’s sleep mediocre sleep has simply worsened. We can absolutely get your toddler or preschooler sleeping like a champ.
What are the main causes of a toddler sleep regression?
During the toddler years, sleep regressions can be caused by various factors. Understanding these causes can help you better navigate through these challenging periods and address the root cause head on.
Here are some of the most common causes of sleep regressions in toddlers:
Culprit #1: Transitioning to a bed too soon
One of the primary causes of sleep regressions in toddlers is transitioning them to a bed prematurely. While moving your child to a big kid bad may seem like the next step as your child grows older, moving them from a crib to a bed before they’re ready can REALLY disrupt their sleep patterns.
The freedom and lack of physical boundaries offered by a bed can overwhelm toddlers who are not yet developmentally ready to handle this freedom. And when this happens, you could find yourself with a toddler constantly getting out of bed at night. After all, your toddler, is FULLY capable of opening his bedroom door and leaving his room whenever he pleases.
The crib, on the other hand, provides a sense of security that a bed may not offer. It also provides an age-appropriate physical boundary keeping your little one contained in his room. In addition to preventing “jack-in-the-box syndrome”, sleeping in a crib makes many toddlers feel safer and and more secure than if they’re in a bed.
To avoid sleep regressions caused by an early transition to a bed, I STRONGLY recommend keeping your child in a crib for as long as you can. Don’t rush the transition to a big bed- there’s no race, I promise. If your little one is sleeping well in his crib and is not exhibiting signs of climbing out, don’t mess with the status quo!
Culprit #2: Too much daytime sleep
While adequate daytime sleep is important for toddlers to avoid overtiredness, excessive napping can actually interfere with their nighttime sleep as well.
See, an average 2 year old typically requires around 11 hours of nighttime sleep and a 2-hour nap. So if your child naps for longer durations, it can take away from his nighttime sleep, leading to sleep disturbances at bedtime and nighttime.
Monitoring your toddler’s nap duration and sleep needs is crucial, as is adjusting his sleep schedule to ensure he gets an appropriate amount of sleep over a 24-hour period. These adjustments can help prevent bedtime battles, night wakings and early rising.
**If you need more guidance on figuring out your little one’s wake windows, nap timings and sleep needs, grab a free copy of my sleep chart here!**
Culprit #3: Not enough daytime stimulation
Toddlers have a surplus of energy and need ample opportunities for physical activity and stimulation during the day. If your child spends most of their time at home, it can sometimes be challenging to provide enough opportunities for them to expend their energy. Lack of stimulation can contribute to a toddler sleep regression because it can lead to difficulty settling down at bedtime.
Whenever possible, make sure to incorporate outdoor playtime and engaging activities that allow your toddler to burn off energy throughout the day. Taking advantage of favorable weather conditions or finding creative ways to provide stimulation indoors can help mitigate sleep disruptions caused by insufficient daytime stimulation.
Culprit #4: Testing boundaries
Toddlers are known for testing boundaries as they develop their newfound independence and assert their autonomy. This natural phase can manifest during sleep routines as well. Your child may try to see how you respond if they refuse to sleep or engage in disruptive behaviors. It is essential to establish clear boundaries and respond calmly and firmly when your toddler tests these limits. Don’t engage in any sort of power struggle- you WILL lose!
By setting clear expectations, maintaining a consistent approach and not responding to your toddler’s shenanigans, you CAN prevent the development of disruptive sleep habits and address regression behaviors effectively.
Culprit #5- Other developmental milestones
Toddlers are constantly acquiring new skills and experiencing significant developmental leaps in various areas. This includes motor skills, language, and cognition. These new milestones can disrupt their sleep patterns as their brains and bodies adjust to these newfound abilities. Some of these big milestones include:
- Language development. Between 12 and 24 months, toddlers experience significant leaps in language skills. They begin to understand and use words, gestures, and simple phrases. This cognitive advancement can lead to increased mental activity, overstimulation, and difficulty winding down for sleep.
- Separation anxiety. Starting around 8 to 10 months and peaking at around 18 months, toddlers develop a strong attachment to their primary caregivers. They may experience separation anxiety, making it harder for them to fall asleep and stay asleep without the presence of a trusted adult. They may exhibit clinginess, fear of separation, or resistance to bedtime.
- Problem solving. Toddlers become more independent problem-solvers as they approach the age of 2. They exhibit curiosity and a desire to explore their environment, which can result in bedtime resistance and a preference for staying awake to engage in activities.
Culprit #6- Not falling asleep by himself
How we fall asleep initially is what sets the tone for the rest of the night. If your little one relies on certain sleep associations, such as a bottle, rocking, or a parent sitting in their room to fall asleep initially, this could explain why he’s waking up wanting a parent to help him go BACK to sleep. See, when he wakes up at the end of one of his many sleep cycles, he might expect you to recreate those conditions and help him go back to sleep. This is because a toddler who needs help falling asleep usually doesn’t know how to consistently connect these sleep cycles on his own.
The solution? Teach him how to fall asleep by himself. Remove the bottle, nursing, rocking, your presence, or whatever sleep crutch your toddler relies on. Toddler sleep training is VERY doable with the right plan in place.
**Note- this doesn’t mean you have to give up nursing completely or throw your bottles in the trash. It simply means you’ll want to teach your little one how to fall ASLEEP without them.
Culprit #7- Night wakings are getting “rewarded”
Rewarding a child’s night wakings will almost certainly lead to toddler sleep regression. This is mainly due to the principles of behavior reinforcement and conditioning. See, when a toddler’s behavior (i.e. a nightwaking) is responded with a positive outcome (i.e. parent brings the child into their bed), the likelihood of that behavior occurring again increases.
If parents respond to a toddler’s night wakings by giving attention, comfort, or rewards (such as milk, toys, extended playtime, another bedtime routine, or being brought into the parents’ bed), the child will associate waking up at night with positive attention and rewards. This unintentionally reinforces the behavior of waking up at night, making it more likely to continue.
**If your toddler is still waking up in the middle of the night, I want to assure you that this is very fixable! Go and watch my FREE masterclass called “Everything you need to know about getting your little one sleeping through the night (even if you feel like you’ve tried everything!)”**
How to manage a toddler sleep regression
Managing a toddler sleep regression can be challenging. But with patience, consistency, and understanding, you can help your child navigate this phase and establish long-term healthy sleep habits. Here are my top tips for managing this developmental stage and addressing this toddler sleep regression (in no particular order):
- Understand the cause. Recognize that sleep regressions often coincide with developmental milestones, growth spurts, or changes in routine. Knowing the underlying issues causing this regression can help you approach the situation with empathy, patience and a correct strategy.
- Teach self-soothing: Encourage your child to develop self-soothing skills by exploring various toddler sleep training methods. And if your child is already sleep trained, be VERY cautious of introducing sleep associations, such as rocking or feeding. These crutches can easily become habitual and hinder your child’s ability to self-soothe. The last thing you want is for this temporary regression to become permanent.
- Review daytime schedule. Ensure that your child is getting enough physical activity, mental stimulation, and nutritious meals during the day. This can help regulate their sleep patterns and minimize disruptions.
- Create a predictable bedtime routine. Establish a soothing bedtime routine that signals to your child that it’s time to wind down. This can include activities like a warm bath, gentle music, dimmed lights, all in a consistent order of activities. A consistent sleep routine provides a sense of security and helps regulate their internal circadian rhythm. If your toddler has turned into a professional bedtime staller, enforce strict limits around these steps. For example, you might want to have a set number of stories and songs. You might also want to use a timer to let your little one know when bath time is over.
- Adjust their sleep schedule. Consider adjusting your child’s daytime naps if they are affecting nighttime sleep. If your child is napping too much during the day or too close to bedtime, it might impact their ability to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. You might also need to bump your toddler’s bedtime later if he no longer appears tired at his regular bedtime. Being on top of your toddler’s sleep needs is crucial!
- Limit interaction. If your child fights bedtime and/or wakes up at night, keep interactions brief and low-key. Avoid finding yourself in a power struggle as this will reinforce waking up during the night. Power struggles are the equivalent of a game for your little one that you stand a 0% chance of winning. The solution? Don’t play the game 🙂
- Seek support. If this toddler sleep regression persists or significantly impact your toddler’s sleep and overall well-being, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from a qualified sleep consultant, such as myself. I’d love to help you get this regression resolved!
While toddler sleep regressions can be challenging, remember that they’re a normal and often unavoidable part of development. Understanding the causes of these regressions, as well as implementing the appropriate strategies to manage them, can REALLY help ease the disruption, nip the sleep problems in the bud, and promote healthy sleep habits for your little one.
Remember- these sleep issues ARE fixable! Your toddler can ABSOLUTELY learn (or re-learn) how to fall asleep nicely at bedtime and sleep through the night on a regular basis. Consistency, patience, and maintaining a nurturing sleep environment and routine are key elements in navigating through these regressions successfully.
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