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5 Tips for Handling Toddler Sleep Regressions

by Vannessa Rhoades 12 Jul 2022
handling toddler sleep regressions

You finally made it past the feeding-around-the-clock and waking-from-wet-diapers stages of infancy. At this stage, you’re not quite so sleep-deprived and have settled into a somewhat predictable bedtime routine with your baby. Whether it’s a soothing bath or reading a book, by this point you think you’ve got a pretty good handle on how to get your little one to settle down for sleep.

And then, they change the game on you.

Your baby becomes a toddler and decides they are no longer interested in routines or in sleeping through the night, for that matter. Though it may feel like an out-of-the-blue move to tired parents, these reversals in sleep patterns are known as sleep regressions and are developmentally normal for toddlers.

What Is Sleep Regression?

Sleep regression is a common, but temporary, phase among toddlers in which they suddenly reject bedtime rituals, wake often, and/or have difficulty going back to sleep on their own. Though it’s normal for infants to wake and cry at night, according to studies, most are sleeping through the night by three months of age. That said, sleep patterns shift as little ones grow, which often results in sleep regression.

The Causes of Toddler Sleep Regressions

These regressions can happen at various points in a child’s development, typically during growth spurts and times of rapid brain development. During these periods, hormones that regulate sleep are disrupted. It’s essentially as though your toddler is getting a reboot of their system, and consequently, their sleep patterns are affected. Sleep regressions are typically short-lived and can be triggered by outside factors as well, such as illness, teething, separation anxiety, schedule changes, travel, or other alterations in their routine.

Signs of Toddler Sleep Regression

  • Night waking
  • Missed naps
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Separation anxiety
  • Bedtime resistance
  • Restless sleep
  • Stalling at bedtime
  • Climbing out of bed
  • Fighting the nap
  • Nap schedule
  • Waking early
  • Adjusting sleep schedules
  • Fussiness
  • General restlessness
  • Irritability

Handling Toddler Sleep Regressions

Waiting It Out: How Long Does Toddler Sleep Regression Last?

Not every child goes through this transition, but a lot do. Sleep regression in toddlers typically happens around 18 months and two years, but each child experiences it differently. If you’re beginning to see signs that a sleep regression period may be imminent for your toddler, take courage – this phase generally lasts for only a few weeks at a time.

Toddler Sleep Regression Solutions: Coping Strategies for Tired Parents

Consistency and patience are critical when it comes to dealing with toddler sleep regression. You’re essentially re-training and re-conditioning their brains on how to go to sleep, stay asleep, and fall back asleep when they wake in the middle of the night. Remember, sleep regression is a normal developmental phase and won’t last forever. Consider the following techniques to help your toddler deal with what is happening:

Make Sure Their Basic Needs are Met

The first step is making sure your child is safe and healthy. Rule out any physical issues, like uncomfortable pajamas, illness, or pain from teething. Next, look for any circumstantial issues that may be causing trouble. For example, if your toddler is crawling out of their crib, make sure it’s on the lowest level setting. Childproof their bedroom so that they can navigate it safely at night. Invest in a night light if they’re afraid of the dark. 

Stay Consistent and Calm

Take a deep breath and gather all the patience you need to respond lovingly and consistently. Remember, this too shall pass.

If your toddler is frequently getting out of bed, experts recommend simply walking them back to their room and tucking them back in each time they do it. Keep your responses and interactions as low-key as possible. You can also sit just outside their room and gently remind them to return to bed each time they try to get up. Some parents even let their toddlers tire themselves out by playing quietly in their room (as long as it’s safe and free of over-stimulating playthings). 

Regardless of the technique you use, stay calm. Resist the urge to punish, yell, or wrestle your child back into bed. Soothe your toddler, reassure them, and repeat

Above all, stay consistent with your bedtime rituals and responses. Your toddler is likely overwhelmed with the changes happening in their body, and predictability is comforting. Keep reading bedtime stories, having a relaxing bath, snuggling with a favorite lovey,  or whatever your routine is in order to signal to your toddler’s brain that bedtime is coming. 

Avoid Screens Before Bed

Limit screen time of all kinds for at least an hour or two prior to bedtime, and don’t keep a television, computer, or tablet in your child’s bedroom. Screen exposure is linked with delays in bedtime and reduced sleep in children. 

Talk to a Sleep Consultant

Many families receive help from trained sleep professionals who can help them get more rest. (Consultants aren’t only for the rich and famous!) Learning good sleep skills takes time and training, and a specialist can guide you through the trickier parts of the process.

Talk to Your Pediatrician

While every toddler experiences sleep regression differently, it normally lasts just a few weeks for most children. Sleep troubles also happen more frequently in children with special needs or medical or psychiatric disorders. Differentiating a normal, short-term sleep regression cycle from the types of sleep disturbances more common for little ones with conditions like autism can be difficult. 

If your toddler is getting less than the recommended 12 to 14 hours of sleep per day or is having significant physical or behavior changes, consult your doctor to eliminate any potential sleep disorders. Continue all regularly scheduled well-child visits as well to make sure your toddler is developing and growing properly.

The Takeaway on Toddler Sleep Regressions

Sleep regressions are a normal part of toddler growth and development. If your little one suddenly has difficulty falling and staying asleep or begins fighting naps or bedtime, they may be going through a period of sleep regression. 

The best approach to handling any type of disruption to your toddler’s sleeping patterns is to remain calm and consistent. Sleep regression is often a short-term problem that resolves in a few weeks. If you’re concerned something more may be at play, speak to your pediatrician or a sleep consultant for more help.

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