Congratulations, you've survived the baby gauntlet and are well into the toddler phase! Your sleepless nights aren't over, though. Sure, you're (maybe) not buying diapers anymore, and your child has a significantly larger vocabulary, but sleeping through the night? It might not last thanks to the 2-year-old sleep regression.
Getting babies on a sleep schedule, or guiding them as they develop their own waking and sleeping routine, takes time and patience. “Even with a predictable bedtime routine, some 2-year-olds may start waking up at night without the ability to self soothe themselves back to sleep,” says Dr. Florencia Segura, M.D., pediatrician at Einstein Pediatrics, in an interview with Romper. Just when all seems right in the world and your hard work has paid off, your kid may suddenly start waking up in the middle of the night or refusing to take naps. These are called sleep regressions and, as stressful as they are for parents to experience, they are quite normal. The Baby Sleep Site defines a sleep regression as such: “a period of time (anywhere from 1-4 weeks) when a baby or toddler who has been sleeping well suddenly starts waking at night, and/or skipping naps (or waking early from naps) for no apparent reason." They often appear at different stages of your child's life, typically at 4 months, 8-10 months, 18 months, and 2 years.
Dr. Segura says these unpleasant regressions can sometimes be affected by how toddlers initially fall asleep. “If you are staying with your child until he or she falls asleep, you will need to be back with him to help him fall back to sleep if they wake up during the night,” she says. “Other times, night awakenings can be due to a nightmare.” Dr. Fran Walfish, Psy.D, child and family psychotherapist tells Romper that oftentimes, separation anxiety is at the root of a child’s sleep regression. “Anytime there is a change in a toddler’s life, development, daily routine, or relationship absence, the first place we see the child’s reaction is in sleep regression. When we are stressed, going through major changes or life transitions, the first place we see symptoms is in sleep disruption,” she says.
Children's sleep consultant Rebecca Michi explains that regressions also happen when your child is dealing with changes such as, "moving to a toddler bed, adding a new sibling to the family, potty training, and beginning to need less sleep." Sometimes the 2-year sleep regression can simply be a sign that your child is getting too much sleep during the day and should drop their daytime nap. (They should be getting about 12-13 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period at this age). While most 2-year-olds still benefit from a daytime nap, if they’re getting exceeding the recommended amount of sleep per day, they’re going to be less inclined to sleep much at night.
To determine whether or not it’s time to drop the daytime nap, look out for signs that your toddler is done napping, such as not appearing tired at normal sleep times and taking a long time to fall asleep. If a daytime nap isn't the problem, take stock of what else is going on in your toddler's life. Have they started potty training, or are they anticipating the arrival of a new sibling? If so, perhaps the regression is just a period of transition that, in a week or so, will end. In the meantime, Walfish suggests a nighttime routine that prepares your child to unwind, settle down, and let go of the day. “Make sure everything in your routine is quiet, calming, and cues your baby that sleep is coming,” she says. If your 2-year-old continues to get out of bed, be supportive but do not engage. “This is an opportunity for your child to grow.” Quietly and calmly walk your toddler back to their bed without chatting or reacting.
It’s all a normal part of a child's development, but sleep regressions can be tough on parents. Surviving them requires patience, liberal doses of coffee, and plenty of flexibility. Sometimes it can feel like nothing you are doing is working or making any difference at all, but rest assured you aren't doing anything "wrong." Before you know it, your toddler will be back on their normal sleep schedule, and the 2-year sleep regression will feel like nothing more than a bad dream.
Dr. Florencia Segura, MD, FAAP, pediatrician at Einstein Pediatrics
Rebecca Michi, Children’s sleep consultant
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