Signs of Sleep Regression in Toddlers and How to Fix It

9 min read

Last Modified 26 August 2021 First Added 26 August 2021

By Nat Took

Once you get your baby sleeping throughout the night, you may be thinking that you’ve finally overcome any night-time disturbances. You might think you’ve miraculously dodged the sleep deprivation that other parents seem to go through. Unfortunately, this probably isn’t the case. When your baby turns into a toddler, you may find your little one suddenly starts waking up again during the night, or simply won’t go to sleep. Welcome to toddler sleep regression! Read on to find out why this happens and how you can help your toddler through this process.

What is sleep regression?

Sleep regression is when a toddler or baby starts to be difficult to put to bed, or no longer sleeps through the night – even when they have previously been a good sleeper. This is a completely natural part of growth and development as sleep patterns can and do change as they grow. However, there are also some external factors that can cause this too. Sleep regression is usually temporary and there are ways you can help your toddler through this phase.
Related: Do sleep patterns change with age?

What age does sleep regression happen?

All toddlers and babies are different, so sleep regression may not even happen, or it may happen at different ages. But commonly, sleep regression happens somewhere between 4 and 24 months. Your little one may go through several stages of sleep regression, at different ages, or they may never have sleep regression. Every child is different.

How long does sleep regression last?

Just like with the age that sleep regression can occur, how long it lasts will differ from child to child. Usually, it’ll last between 1 and 3 weeks, so long as you respond consistently and keep patient. Though, sometimes, no matter how well you deal with your toddler’s sleep regression, it can last longer. We’ll give you some tips later in this article on how to get through this somewhat difficult time.

What causes sleep regression in toddlers?

The causes for 18-month and 24-month sleep regression vary from child to child. They can be natural side-effects of your little one’s development, or there may be external factors that disturb their sleep – a combination of factors can even come into play. Common causes include:

Developmental advances

Toddlers are learning new things and developing new skills every day, as well as physically growing. Growing pains from their physical growth can make it difficult for your toddler to sleep.

Also, around this age, children tend to make a leap in their physical abilities and social skills, which can lead to difficulty at bedtime. Growth can also temporarily disrupt hormones that regulate sleep, which can mean disrupted sleep.

Related: Melatonin and Sleep

Independence

As a toddler, your child is developing physical, language and social skills, this can lead them to want more independence. This quest for independence can cause disruption at bedtime, as they want to be their own boss.

Changes

Whether this be moving to a new house, a sibling coming along, changes in their day-time routine, or even a holiday, any little change can potentially disrupt your toddler’s sleep routine and cause sleep regression. Changes can cause a toddler to become overtired, which makes it harder for them to settle at night.

Teething

Teething is not fun. In fact it can be uncomfortable and painful, so it’s not unusual for your toddler to have sleep regression whilst they’re teething.

Separation anxiety

You’re probably trying to get your child to sleep on their own through sleep training. But at this age your child may be clingy and want a parent to be around as they go to sleep. Separation anxiety is a common reason for sleep regression.

Fear

Your child is starting to see the world in new, complex ways as a toddler. With this complexity, fears can come into play. It’s not unusual for a toddler to suddenly become scared of the dark and so have difficulty going to bed. In fact, it’s even common for toddlers to develop a fear of Santa at this age!

Symptoms of sleep regression in a toddler

Sleep regression in a toddler can manifest in a number of ways, not just refusing to go to bed. A toddler may show just one symptom, or a number, as each child is different. Symptoms can include:

  • More night-time awakenings
  • Finding it more difficult to go back to sleep after a night time awakening
  • Fussiness at bedtime
  • Resisting going to bed
  • Climbing out of the cot/bed
  • Longer and/or more frequent naps during the day
  • Not being able to relax and fall asleep once in bed
  • Greater fear and/or crying out when parents move away from the bed

Tips for toddler sleep regression

If your toddler won’t sleep due to sleep regression, it can be a difficult time for them and you as parents. You’re back to sleepless nights and may have a cranky and overtired toddler during the day. You want them back to sleeping through the night as quickly as possible, and it’ll do them good too. Here are our tips for managing sleep regression in a toddler:

Be consistent

If your toddler won’t sleep, the best thing you can do is remain consistent with their bedtime routine. A routine will help your toddler know what’s going on and help them get through this confusing time. Whether you normally go for bath and bed, storytime or cuddles before bed, don’t change this routine just because your toddler isn’t sleeping as well. Keep it predictable and simple, the routine will be a cue for sleep, much like having a bed routine in adults has the same effect.

You should also stay consistent with naps throughout the day. Having a set sleep routine can reinforce a sleep pattern.

Although it can be tough, especially if your toddler is showing signs of separation anxiety, it’s important that you keep your toddler sleeping in their own bed. You need to help them realise that their bed is where they sleep and ensure they’re comfortable in their own bed.

Make their sleep space comfortable

A good sleep space is vital for a good night’s sleep – in babies, toddlers, children, and adults. Ensure their room is at a comfortable temperature and keep the area as dark and quiet as possible. If your child is scared of the dark, a night light can help alleviate these fears. Or if your toddler is often disturbed by noise, a white noise machine can help to drown out other sounds.

Have active days

Getting out and using up your toddler’s energy during the day can help them to be ready to sleep at night. Getting them outside also exposes them to natural light which helps to regulate their circadian rhythm.

Limit screen time

We’ve all been told that blue light from screens can make it difficult to get to sleep, and this has exactly the same effect on toddlers. So don’t allow screens in your toddler’s room and have no-screen time as part of the bedtime routine. Ideally, you shouldn’t let your toddler be exposed to screens within two hours of their bedtime.

Stay calm and ensure safety

Although staying calm when you’re being woken during the night can be difficult, it’s an important thing to do. If you don’t stay calm, you may agitate your toddler even more, which will make it even harder for them to sleep. If your child calls out to you, and you need to soothe them, do this calmly, but with little emotion. Try to calm them from a distance so that they don’t expect you to come in and soothe them completely.

If your toddler is actually trying to climb out and come to you, it’s more important for their safety that you do go to them. If this is something that they are trying often you may need to make adjustments to their room. This could be lowering the mattress as low as it can go. If they’re still managing to climb out, it may be time for a toddler bed. Even if this means they can come and disturb you in your own room, this is better than them performing dangerous antics to get to you.

Related: Choosing Your Child’s First Bed

If your toddler climbs out of bed and comes to you, simply pick them up, or lead them back calmly to bed. Say as little as possible and show as little emotion as you can. Another option here is to sit outside their door with something quiet to keep yourself occupied, like a book, and remind them to go back to bed if they try to come out. Even if they start playing with toys, as long as they’re doing this quietly and safely, this can tire them out and they may put themselves to bed once they’re ready. This is a simpler and gentler way of responding to bedtime issues.

When to see a doctor

For most toddlers, sleep regression will only last a few weeks, and although it’s a frustrating time, you should be able to get through it. However, if this lasts for over a month, it’s advisable to have a word with your paediatrician or doctor. You should especially bring this up if there are other issues such as weight gain, reduced energy, or changes to their appetite.

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