At 18 months old, my third son started skipping naps. I put him in his room at the same time every afternoon, but instead of sleeping, he occupied himself by pulling every book off his bookshelf, scattering stuffed animals around the room and yelling for me to LET HIM OUT.
But that was nothing compared to the full-fledged nighttime revolt: everything from hysterical crying at bedtime to prolonged periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night. A week later, confused and exhausted after my son had spent the hours between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. crying in his bed and refusing to go back to sleep, I texted a friend who is a pediatric nurse, desperate for answers.
"What is happening?!" I asked.
Her answer? The 18-month sleep regression.
But my son was a toddler, not a baby, and had been snoozing happily for months on end. Did all 18-month-olds really go through this?
Maybe not all—but more than a few of them definitely do. “These sleep changes are entirely normal and an expected part of development, so it’s more of a sleep maturation or evolution than a regression,” says Phil Boucher, a pediatrician in Lincoln, Nebraska.
If you’re currently in the throes of a sleep regression, there’s good news: you don’t have to simply wait for the phase to pass. We asked experts to explain why these naptime/bedtime dramas happen and what you can do to help your child sleep restfully again.
Your toddler goes through many major development milestones like teething, starting daycare and switching from a crib to a big-kid bed, all of which can contribute to the 18-month sleep regression, says Alanna McGinn, a certified sleep consultant and the founder of Good Night Sleep Site. But there’s one primary reason why kids this age start engaging in exhausting sleep strikes: newfound independence.
“Normally, when we see sleep issues at this age, it’s behavioural,” McGinn says. “They’re learning a lot developmentally, including how to test boundaries and push limits.”
At bedtime, toddlers may start resisting their routine, dragging it out from the usual 15 to 20 minutes to 30 or 40 minutes (or even longer!). During naptime, toddlers may spend too much time goofing around, quickly becoming overtired and struggling to fall asleep; this can result in them skipping naps, or naps that run too late in the day, disrupting bedtime.
The key to resolving these issues is consistency and efficiency. Boucher recommends keeping bedtime and naptime routines short and sweet, and maintaining a set of boundaries (i.e. only one book after bath, not two or three).
“Your child can’t tell time, and he can’t tell that he should be going to bed,” says Boucher. “But if he knows there is a similar short sequence preceding bedtime, he can prepare himself to go down [quickly].”
A basic sleep routine for an 18-month-old could include a bath, pyjamas, story time then a few minutes of quiet conversation or a lullaby before turning off the lights and saying goodnight. For naps, the routine should basically be the same, minus the bath and pyjamas and possibly adding some room darkening and white noise measures to cue your child for sleep. Whatever you choose, make sure you can stick with it when your child tries to test your limits.
And don’t be surprised if your 18-month-old wakes up in the middle of the night. Kids (and adults) wake up anywhere from two to six times a night. But issues arise if your kid doesn’t know how to independently fall back to sleep and needs a parent’s help, says sleep psychologist Lynelle Schneeberg, who’s the director of the behavioural sleep medicine program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
If your child is still sleeping in a crib and wakes up during the night, you can wait it out a bit (to see if she settles on her own), then go into her room every five to 10 minutes to provide some brief back rubbing and simple reassurance in a gentle voice that everything is fine and it’s time to sleep. If your kid is in a big-kid bed, you have to decide whether you want to let your tot sleep in your room. Schneeberg advises not allowing your child to actually sleep in your bed: set her up in a cot or sleeping bag on the floor near your bed instead. Alternatively, you can take her back to her room and sit in a nearby chair until she falls back to sleep. (This is a method that can be slowly phased out by moving the chair further and further away until your child no longer needs you there.)
All these options work best when parents consider them to be short-term solutions, says Schneeberg. The goal is to create an independent sleeper, not one who is reliant on you—or your bed—to help them fall asleep.
The reason for sleep regressions in two-year-olds is not any different than it is for 18-month-olds, though there are a few added complications. At two, many kids' social calendars begin filling up: they may be going to preschool, meeting friends for playdates or going on fun daytime excursions with their caregiver. But McGinn says these activities can kick off a vicious cycle.
“Two-year-old nap strikes usually happen because naps aren’t being offered consistently,” she explains. “Your child starts to think naps are optional and stops sleeping—then you think he doesn’t need a nap anymore and let him drop it.”
The problem is that most kids don’t actually stop needing a nap until they’re between three and five years old. So while your two-year-old may seem like he’s doing just fine without a little daytime sleep, it won’t be that simple come bedtime.
“If you don’t remedy the daytime sleep loss with an earlier bedtime, your child will get overtired, push boundaries at bedtime and fall asleep late, then start accumulating a sleep debt,” explains McGinn.
Obviously, you can’t make your two-year-old take a nap, but McGinn says there are things you can do to encourage him. Make naptime mandatory, not optional, by taking a break in the middle of each day to go home and rest. If your child is refusing to sleep, make it clear that it’s “quiet time” in the house whether he chooses to snooze or not. And on the days when he doesn’t nap, put him to bed 30 to 45 minutes earlier to counteract any overtiredness and give him more time to settle down.
If your two-year-old’s independent streak results in what Schneeberg calls “curtain calls” at bedtime (i.e. a refusal to stay in bed in favour of appearing in the hallway—or your bedroom—after lights out), she says you have a couple of choices: you can return your child calmly to his bedroom, saying only, “It’s bedtime,” before depositing him back in his bed and leaving, or you can park yourself outside his bedroom door (pretending to occupy yourself with a book or quiet activity) to ensure he can’t leave the room.
With the second approach, it’s important to largely ignore any of your child’s attempts to attract your attention and to limit interacting with him. “You don’t even need to make sure your child gets back into bed, because this can become a power struggle, and he will almost always eventually go back to bed if you pay little attention to him,” she says. “However, you do need to make sure that he does not succeed in leaving the room.” Your toddler can play with a book or a quiet toy in his room until he is tired enough to lie down and fall asleep, explains Schneeberg.
While neither of those options sound appealing (they require loads of patience), Schneeberg confirms that putting up with the repetition in the short term will reap long-term benefits.
–Turn off all screens an hour before bedtime, and do calm activities like colouring or reading instead. –Help your child select a transitional sleep object like a stuffed animal or blanket that lets her know it’s time to lie down and go to sleep. Schneeberg says this item should be an object that stays behind when a parent leaves at bedtime, as well as one the child can use independently if she wakes up at night. “Things like rubbing a child’s back, laying down with a child in her bed and holding her hand until she falls asleep can be problematic because a child will wake up during the night and likely need whatever she had at bedtime from the parent to go back to sleep,” she says. –Use visuals, like a bedtime routine chart or a toddler sleep clock that lights up when it’s time to wake up. –Above all, be patient. “It won’t get better overnight,” says McGinn, “but if parents are really consistent, they should be able to take back naptime and bedtime in one to two weeks.”