What is a toddler sleep regression? 

Does this sound familiar: Your toddler is a gold-star sleeper, and then—bam!—all of a sudden starts resisting bedtime, waking in the middle of night, or rising before the sun. These seemingly out-of-the-blue setbacks in sleep are known as sleep regressions.

When do toddler sleep regressions happen? 

Sleep regressions often go hand-in-hand with physical or developmental milestones (think: teething or learning a big new skill like walking or talking). For example, early on, it might be a 3-month-old who goes from waking once a night to crying for help every hour (aka the dreaded 3 to 4 month sleep regression)! Or, a 9-month-old who abruptly starts waking several times to practice crawling...and gets stuck in an uncomfortable position (the so-called 9-month sleep regression). Of course, toddler sleep can regress, too—like a toddler who suddenly wakes twice a night asking for water or for your presence to calm their fears. Parents often report toddler regressions around 18 months and 2 years…though regressions could happen later, too. 

What causes toddler sleep regressions? 

Toddlers have twice as many buzzing brain connections as we do. This enormous burst of activity enables your curious child to sharpen their skills, quickly going from walking to running to speaking, playing games, and using manners. Many energetic toddlers resist bedtime because they hate leaving the thrill of these experiences. They get so jazzed by moving, learning, and exploring, the last thing they want to do is settle down and fall asleep—they would much rather stay up to see what everyone else is up to. 

Plus, toddlers are just learning how to get along in our world of clocks and rules. No wonder they keep bumping up against our boundaries and pushing to get their way!  With certain tenacious kids, this drive to independence can lead to very stubborn behaviour ('No!' is a favourite word among toddlers)! And, what makes for even more sleep troubles is another universal toddler trait: The more tired they get, the crankier and more defiant they become.

Besides normal toddler defiance, there are a few other toddler sleep regression causes:

  • Your bedtime timing is off. You have set a bedtime that is too early (they are not tired) or too late (they are overtired and wired). Important note: If your toddler recently dropped a nap, you will likely need to move bedtime earlier to avoid sleep problems related to your child being overtired. (Learn how to find the right bedtime for your toddler.)

  • Your toddler has anxiety. It is totally normal for toddlers to go through periods of fearfulness. After all, they are small people who are surrounded by big people who yell, big dogs that bark, violence on the screen, and their own aggressive impulses. No wonder toddlers may suddenly be worried about the dark, strangers, 'bad men' or other new fears. (Here is some advice for coping with sudden toddler fears.)

  • Your toddler is hooked on Mum or Dad’s help. They have not yet learned how to doze off without you.

  • Your toddler is overexcited. Your tot may be riled up by screens, roughhousing, or caffeine before bed….or big life changes, such as the birth of a new baby or starting preschool.

  • Something is bugging them. Bright lights, loud noises, or discomfort (teething, a room that is too warm or too cool, a stuffy nose, itchy PJs, etc.) can all interfere with sleep.

How long do toddler sleep regressions last?

It depends. If you address the cause of your child’s regression right away, it can be short-lived, lasting just few days to a couple of weeks. But, handled incorrectly (with shaming, impatience, mixed messages, etc.) bothersome sleep behaviours can turn into months-long ordeals. 

What is the best way to handle a toddler sleep regression? 

Prepare for bedtime…during the day to improve toddler sleep.

I often teach parents that bedtime starts…right after breakfast! By that, I mean that kids sleep better when they have a day filled with daylight, fresh air, exercise, good food, play, a little breathing or mindfulness practice, and avoiding stimulants (iced tea, cola, sugar, chocolate, decongestants, etc.). During the day, it is also nice to practice reading your beddy-bye book: a homemade book with photos to illustrate all the steps of the bedtime routine. Reading this together helps your child know what is expected when it is time to hit the hay. 

Use a predictable bedtime routine to stop toddler sleep regressions.

And then—of course—a good bedtime routine will go a long way to helping avoid sleep issues. Start the routine about an hour before bedtime. Dim the lights, turn on some low, rumbly white noise in the background, stop roughhousing, and turn off screens. Reading together, a warm bath, or perhaps a massage can be relaxing cues that bedtime is drawing near. 

Then, after putting on PJs, washing up, and brushing teeth, it is helpful to organise the last 15 minutes into a very predictable routine: snuggle together in bed (white noise on), read a few stories, do some bedtime sweet talk (a review of some things the child is grateful for from the day just passed and what they are looking forward to the next day). Finally, a little lullaby and then 'good night, my sweet little sleepy head.'

Solve toddler sleep regressions with Twinkle Interruptus.

For toddlers who fight sleep or who rely on your presence to nod off, a little technique I call Twinkle Interruptus can improve sleep, without having to go through crying it out. First, start using white noise every evening and night and encourage your child to start a friendship with a lovey (like a teddy or blanket). Next, practice patience stretching several times a day for a week.

Lastly, at bedtime, after going through your routine of stories and lullabies, suddenly say 'Oh gosh! Wait! Wait! Just one second!  I need to check on Mama! I’ll be right back!'. Leave the room for just a few seconds and come back. When you return, praise your toddler for waiting. Next, read or sing a bit more and once again make an excuse for why you have to go out for a little longer period, again ('Uh, oh! Daddy has to go potty really, really fast! Here you hold Mr. Teddy. Give him a super big hug and Daddy will be right back.'). When you repeat this a few times, gradually increasing the waiting interval, over several nights your toddler is likely to fall asleep while waiting a minute or two for your return.

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