child development · parenting · sleeping

Do Toddlers Have Sleep Regressions?

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When you’re a new parent, you very quickly discover the concept of sleep regressions. This is the concept that babies go through phases where they sleep less well and wake up more often in the night, and that these phases are associated with certain developmental milestones and growth spurts; meaning that there are particular ages when most babies go through a patch of bad sleep. Sleep regression is most associated with the first year or so of a baby’s life. But my experiences with our two year old toddler got me wondering – do toddlers have sleep regressions too? In this blog post, I’ll run through the typical ages for toddler sleep regression, our experience, and how to get through it with your sanity intact!

Do Toddlers Have Sleep Regressions?

Sleep Regression Ages

I’ve written previously about the sleep regression at 8 months (spoiler alert: it’s a doozy). Sleep regressions in babies are commonly said to occur at around 4 months, 8 months and 12 months, although some sources also say they happen at 6 and 10 months as well – at which point they seem so frequent that you have to start wondering whether you’re experiencing a ‘sleep regression’ or just, you know, a baby that’s not great at sleeping.

When I first read about sleep regressions, I only focused on the first twelve months because everything beyond that just seemed so far away. Now Little Man is two-and-a-bit, though, I’ve returned to my reading and found that a lot of sources also list two toddler sleep regressions: one at 14 – 18 months, and one around two years. This definitely fits with our experience over the past year or so!

Toddler Sleep Regression: 18 Months

Around 18 months old, we found that Little Man suddenly went through a real change in how he wanted to go to sleep. Up until then, we had still rocked him to sleep in our arms before putting him in his cot. Then one day, out of the blue… He didn’t want to go to sleep in our arms any more! The slight issue was, he didn’t really know how to go to sleep in his cot either. It took a good few weeks before he consistently got the hang of it, and during that time his bedtimes took soooooo long. It was very frustrating.

According to various sources online, the 18 month toddler sleep regression can be caused by separation anxiety and often manifests as a resistance to bedtime. We didn’t really experience a resistance to bedtime, so much as a shift in Little Man’s needs in how he wanted to get to bed, which I think was to do with the fact that he’d grown bigger and so was less comfortable in our arms. I’m not sure if this is typical for this regression, because Little Man has always been quite small for his age, ever since he arrived three weeks early!

Trains are an essential component of bedtime

Toddler Sleep Regression: 2 Years

We seemed to hit the 2 year old sleep regression a bit early, around the 22 month mark – and the bad news is, it seemed to carry on for about three months or so. Ouch. According to some sources, the two year sleep regression is caused by toddlers’ developing sense of self: they start to develop an awareness that things happen when they’re not there and consequently don’t want to miss out on the fun – a.k.a. a classic case of FOMO. As a result, they start refusing naps and bedtime – and you also then ironically run the risk of them becoming overtired and more difficult to put to sleep.

Little Man has only rarely refused naps, but he had refused bedtime in a big way. When we started trying to leave the room with him in his cot before he’s asleep, we had very mixed results as often (but not always!) he seemed to be drifting off happily enough, only to wake up suddenly and completely about a minute after we left the room.

It’s interesting that the literature says this sleep regression is about fear of missing out, because I’d say in our experience it’s much more about Little Man feeling anxious about being left alone. He struggles much more at bedtime if he’s overtired or feeling a bit under the weather (or teething of course!). And reports from nursery suggest he’s just fine at naptime when there’s lots of other children napping around him (the magic of peer pressure apparently starts at an early age!). He’s usually happy enough to stop playing in the evenings and head upstairs to bed – it’s definitely the ‘being left alone’ part that seems to cause the issue.

I also think that Little Man suffers quite a bit from hypnic jerks – those twitchy muscle movements that make it feel like you’re falling when you’re going to sleep. He’s very twitchy and it would explain the times he randomly starts crying just as it seems that he’s about to really drift off.

How to handle toddler sleep regressions

The bad news is, of course, that I don’t have any magical words of wisdom for other parents going through a toddler sleep regression: all I can offer is sympathy.

All the advice online suggests having a well-established sleep routine; I definitely think that helps, but it’s hardly the solution of the century. All you can do is try to be patient, be consistent and not lose your mind on the days when it feels like you’re spending your whole evening trying to get an obviously tired child to sleep. You can try to work on the separation anxiety and FOMO feelings that might be getting in the way of your toddler settling down to sleep, but there’s not really anything you could do if they’re twitching themselves awake or ending up unsettled due to falling dreams. Even us grown ups sometimes have trouble sleeping and wake up freaked out after a bad dream – I guess it’s not exactly surprising that little ones do too.

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